The uncertain fate of a small Arab-owned electric power company in east Jerusalem has sparked a hot political controversy over how much self-rule the present Israeli government would grant Palestinian Arabs under its proposed autonomy scheme.
Renewal of the moribund negotiations on the plan is expected to be a key item for discussion when Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir meets with US Secretary of State Alexander Haig when they meet in Washington this week.
An Israeli government attempt Monday to buy out the concession of the East Jerusalem Electric Company, the biggest Arab-owned industrial enterprise -- and the only shareholders' consortium -- on the West Bank, was temporarily halted by the Israeli Supreme Court.
The Israeli Energy Ministry argued that the case involved only around provision of more efficient service. It said this was the reason for invoking a clause in the company's original Ottoman concession that offers the government under which the concession operates the option, once every five years, of purchasing it.
But the high court agreed with the electric company that "political considerations . . . were dominant."
The company's concession includes 17,000 residents of new east Jerusalem suburbs as well as West Bank Jewish settlements and military installations among its 70,000 (mostly Arab) customers in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The Israeli government is not happy to have electricity supplies to settlers and soldiers under Palestinian control.
While Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, who opposes the takeover as detrimental to Arab-Jewish relations, says the company's service to Jerusalem is efficient, West Bank settlers claim it discriminates against them. Israel Harel, secretary of the Council of Jewish Settlers in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza said recently, "Whoever controls the electricity switch [on the West Bank] controls security."
Moreover, electricity on the West Bank has become a nationalist issue. Palestinians view Israeli attempts to link West Bank towns to the Israeli electricity grid as an attempt to foreclose the possibility of a separate Palestinian entity there and to tiie the West Bank to Israel.
The fate of the electric company has also become an issue in the Israeli election campaign, just getting under way. The opposition Labor Party, currently leading in the polls, is anxious to smooth tensions with West Bankers and opposes the takeover.
Energy Minister Yitzhak Modai has charged Labor Party leader Shimon Peres with promising the Arab head of the electric company to return the concession after the elections, should be present government buy it out.
Retorted Abba Eban, Labor's shadow foreign minister, "A government which is seriously thinking of autonomy ought to be satisfied with the existence of certain functions which are in the hands of Arab administrators."
The Supreme Court ruled that the government had the right to take over that part of the concession located in Arab east Jerusalem. But it refused permission to take over the West Bank concession since occupied territory is subject to internat ional law limiting changes there.