Behind Begin's sudden troubles: concern about hard-line policies
The gunfire and stormy demonstrations wracking the West Bank for days have now exploded onto Israel's political scene.
At time of writing, the government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin was teetering near collapse after an opposition no-confidence vote had resulted in a tie March 23. It was not immediately clear whether Mr. Begin would resign, but he was expected to do so by many political observers.
The no-confidence vote was precipitated by the Begin government's policies toward both the Golan Heights and the West Bank. There has been mounting criticism both here and abroad of what are seen by critics of the coalition government as its hard-line tactics in trying to suppress discontent in the Israeli-occupied territories.
A strike by Druze inhabitants of the Golan Heights, virtually annexed by Israel last December, is now in its sixth week. A general strike by West Bank Arabs protesting Israeli policies there moved into its fifth day Tuesday. Two Arab youths have been killed by Israeli troops and nearly a score wounded.
The Begin government has seemed determined to squash West Bank Arab resistance to Israel's version of autonomy. The resistance has been led by the elected Palestinian mayors of West Bank towns who are supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organization. And it was the ouster last week of the mayor of El Bireh and his municipal council that touched off the current round of violence.
Under the Camp David agreements, the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are to have autonomy for a five-year period. After that, the future political destiny of the territories is to be determined. The PLO and its supporters in the West Bank have denounced the Camp David agreement as a cover for Israel's intention to effectively annex the territories. They demand unequivocal Israeli withdrawal.
The Israeli authorities have been seeking alternative Palestinian leadership willing to participate in the shaping of the autonomy and in running it when it is created. Turning to the rural sector of the West Bank, which constitutes more than 60 percent of the population, the authorities have financed, and even provided some arms, to ''village leagues'' whose leaders have dared to defy the PLO.
But the prime political leadership in the West Bank has remained in the hands of urban leaders. Most of them were elected - in a ballot organized by Israel six years ago - largely on the basis of their support for the PLO.
Last October, Israel replaced its military government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with a civilian administration. Although headed by Israelis, it was seen as the forerunner of an Israeli version of an autonomous Palestinian administration.
The nationalist Palestinian mayors, however, have refused to cooperate with the Israeli civilian administration, which they view as a vehicle for the perpetuation of Israeli rule. They had accepted military government only as a temporary instrument.
The die was cast early last week when the recently-appointed civilian governor of the West Bank, Prof. Menachem Milson, invited to a conference the mayor of El Bireh, Ibrahim Tawil, and his municipal council. When the invitation was refused, Milson issued an order - the first such under Israeli occupation - disbanding the council. Unable to find local moderates willing to replace the ousted officials, Milson appointed a committee made up of Israeli officers and civilians to run the town.
Reaction and counterreaction escalated swiftly as both sides attempted to achieve a decisive face-off. The municipalities of Nablus and Ramallah, at the forefront of Palestinian nationalism, called for a general strike, which was taken up in much of the West Bank. Youthful Arab demonstrators blocked roads and pelted Israeli vehicles with stones.
Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, the prime architect of Israeli policy in the occupied territories, ordered a partial curfew imposed on Nablus, Ramallah, and El Bireh and barred residents of those towns from crossing the Jordan River bridges into Jordan.
Troops were ordered to break up demonstrations with force, if necessary. In a series of shootings, two youths were killed and nearly 20 persons injured by soldiers. A number of Israeli soldiers were reported injured by rocks. Israeli civilian settlers in the West Bank also fired guns at or over the heads of demonstrators. One settler was arrested on suspicion of having killed an Arab in such a volley.
Ramallah Mayor Karim Khalas and his council signed their resignations but did not submit them when they came to suspect that the Israeli authorities want them to resign. Yehuda Litani, who covers the West Bank for the daily Haaretz, says that if Khalas and fellow hard-liner, Nablus Mayor Bassam Shaka, do not resign, they will probably be issued invitations to a meeting with Milson similar to that issued to El Bireh's Tawil. Presumably, this would be an invitation they would reject, thereby bringing on their ouster also.
The Israeli authorities, says Litani, believe there are moderate Palestinian leaders who would come forward after emotions cool off.
Certainly, the authorities have appeared determined to break what they see as the PLO's hold on the West Bank. But many Israelis have become concerned about the ''brutalization,'' as an Haaretz editorial put it, involved in any prolonged attempt to impose Israel's will on a hostile population.
Professor Milson has made clear his belief that Jordan must be involved in any permanent solution to the Palestinian problem. However, the Jordanian government has attempted to undermine his policy of seeking an alternative to PLO leadership on the West Bank.