Israeli 'Arabists' urge shutting down West Bank bridges, newspapers

With the West Bank relatively calm after two weeks of disturbances, Israeli officials are quietly debating a further clampdown.

The same Israeli experts who recommended last month's dismissal of three West Bank mayors--which then led to clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli soldiers--are urging Prime Minister Menachem Begin to take two additional steps:

* Shut the bridges between the occupied West Bank and Jordan.

* Further muzzle the free, but heavily censored, West Bank Arab press.

The aim, according to one of the Israeli experts, would be to reduce the ''politicization'' of West Bank Palestinians, which he argues is due in large part to the anti-Israeli slant of the Arab newspapers published here and to the contact Palestinians have with more radical Arabs outside of Israeli-held territory.

This is the argument of a group of Israeli ''Arabists'' who are increasingly influential in formulating Israeli policy toward the West Bank. Most highly placed among these Arabists is Menachem Milson, civil administrator of the occupied territories.

A close associate of Professor Milson, Zvi Elpeleg of the Shiloah Institute in Tel Aviv, told the Monitor: ''Israel must reassess the benefits and harm caused by the bridges. It is not certain that they are a good thing.

''The (Arab) newspapers,'' he added, ''have poisoned the inhabitants of Arab areas and in east Jerusalem.''

Israeli authorities have curtailed circulation of Al Sajr and Al Shaab newspapers and restricted movement of their editors. The newspaper Al Quds, which takes a line more to Israel's liking, is still being distributed in the West Bank and Gaza.

Shutting down Arab newspapers might be perceived as the more draconian act by the outside world, but closing the bridges over the Jordan would seem to present a greater problem for Israeli leaders because the bridges are an economic artery to the occupied territory.

Mr. Elpeleg, who declined the post of civil administrator before it was offered to Mr. Milson, contends Israel could make up any economic losses that would come about as a result of closing the much-traveled bridges.

West Bank farm produce, he says, could simply be shipped out of Israeli ports. The loss of Arab capital that flows into the West Bank via Jordan - including $70 million to $100 million a year in official Arab League assistance as well as individual earnings brought over the bridges - could be compensated for by reducing West Bank municipal budgets and introducing municipal taxation among West Bank Arabs.

Besides removing an avenue for ''politicization'' of the West Bank, Mr. Elpeleg argues, Israel would be able to substitute its financial aid for Arab assistance.

By providing such assistance, through a system of Israeli patronage of West Bank leaders, Israel would foster ''leaders who would be willing to differ with the PLO--not in the ultimate goal of Palestinian statehood but in negotiations toward that goal,'' he says.

Although the Begin government adopted Mr. Milson's suggestions in its recent replacement of pro-PLO mayors on the West Bank, it is not certain the government will agree to these further steps--especially closure of the bridges - even though they appear to be in line with the policy Mr. Milson has been implementing since December 1981.

A veteran diplomat here argues that the Arab money that enters the occupied territories over the bridges cannot be taken lightly, since it is quickly factored into the Israeli economy through purchases of goods and services: ''A country in such lousy ecnomomic shape cannot just toss out $70 million and not see an effect in its economy,'' he says.

The diplomat adds that the bridges serve as a ''safety valve'' for the West Bank population: ''If somebody gets sufficiently angry, he can just cross the bridge and join the PLO. If you close the bridges, you contain the population--but you also radicalize them.''

An Israeli who served in the opposition Labor government before Mr. Begin came to power says it is quite likely that new, tougher measures are under consideration by Begin's Cabinet. This includes closure of the bridges.

He warns, however, that such an act would ''increase bitterness'' on the West Bank, impair relations with Jordan, and seriously damage the Camp David autonomy process.

If Israel ultimately intends to annex the West Bank, as Defense Minister Ariel Sharon again indicated April 5, sealing the borders probably would be a prelude. Doing so, however, would surely spark new civil disturbances in the occupied territories.

During the past two weeks, the Begin government almost collapsed due to its handling of the West Bank turmoil that resulted from dismissal of the elected mayors.

For the past week, Mr. Sharon has busily defended the government's handling of that crisis. Whether the government could weather another West Bank storm is uncertain.

As Mr. Elpeleg sees it, the only way to prevent future storms on the West Bank is to contain pro-PLO elements and protect moderates.

''Since 1967 Israeli leaders believed that the more you gave the Arabs, the less political they got,'' he observes.

'' We were going to be the enlightened conqueror. But instead, we created a political vacuum on the West Bank that was filled by the PLO. It wasn't a plan, it was just a stupid mistake.''

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