Peres's juggling act: pushing for peace, fending off rightists

Prime Minister Shimon Peres is trying to keep the issue of peace on the political agenda here in the face of stepped-up Palestinian attacks on Israelis in Israeli-occupied territories. Mr. Peres is pulled between a desire to encourage Jordanian efforts toward negotiations and the need to protect himself from the hard-line Likud half of his government, advisers close to the prime minister say.

As attacks on Israelis continue -- the latest came Thursday with the stabbing of an Israeli in the occupied Gaza Strip -- the Likud and ultranationalistic settlers have seized the opportunity to accuse Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin of being ``soft on terror.''

The result is a seesaw policy that some Western diplomats here say may kill any chances of early negotiations between Israel and a Jordanian-Palestinian team.

In recent weeks, Israel has cracked down on the occupied West Bank by:

Detaining dozens of West Bank Palestinians without charges.

Seeking to deport three West Bank residents, who have obtained a stay of the action from the Israeli Supreme Court.

Imposing curfews on towns where attacks have occurred and banning their residents from crossing into Jordan.

Israel also has intercepted yachts in the international waters of the Mediterranean Sea which security sources here claim had been chartered by guerrillas of the Palestine Liberation Organization seeking to attack Israel. Israel announced Wednesday that three guerrillas had been caught trying to cross into Israel through the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The PLO has claimed responsibility for some of the attacks.

The Israeli Air Force bombed a suspected guerrilla base Wednesday in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Both Peres and Mr. Rabin have issued warnings to Jordan's King Hussein that he cannot allow the PLO to keep its headquarters in Amman.

The tough measures, one knowledgeable Western source said, ``are creating a bad atmosphere on the West Bank and in Jordan,'' among Jordanians and Palestinians who suspect Israel is using the impact the attacks have on Israeli public opinion to squash any chance of negotiations.

But the Likud and the ultranationalistic settlers movement Gush Emunim insist the government has not gone far enough. Wednesday night, groups of settlers tried to squat in the Arab section of Hebron, where two Israeli soldiers were stabbed Tuesday. The Army evicted the illegal settlers.

In Hebron Wednesday, Peres both promised that the attacks on Israelis would not be tolerated and warned that illegal actions by the settlers would be prevented.

``If the settlers try to squat illegally anywhere, we will stop them,'' promised a senior Israeli official.

A settlers' spokesman responded that there ``would be more arrests'' because the settlers are determined to move Jews into heavily populated Arab areas to defend the principle of Jewish settlement in what Gush Emunim views as historic Israel.

While searching for ways to stop the wave of attacks and hold the nationalists at bay, Peres has sought to assure both Jordan and Egypt that Israel is still interested in pursuing the peace process.

``Peres is conducting himself, I think, with extraordinary skill,'' said one Western diplomat. The question remains, the diplomat said, whether it is possible for Peres to balance his need to appear tough to the Israeli public with his need to appear flexible to the moderate Arabs and the United States.

Peres sent a close aide on an unannounced overnight visit to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo Wednesday. A senior Israeli official said Abraham Tamir and Mr. Mubarak discussed ``different possiblities of how to advance relations,'' between Israel and the only Arab nation with which it is at peace.

Peres has for months urged that Mubarak attend a summit meeting with him. The Egyptian President has indicated he will do so if Israel agrees to send the issue of which nation owns a tiny piece of Sinai beach called Taba to binding arbitration. Israel controls the beach, and Egypt claims it is Egyptian territory.

Advisers to Peres have consistently said no real progress can be made toward negotiating the future of the West Bank before the peace with Egypt, damaged by Israel's invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, is restored.

For the same reason, Vice-Premier Yitzhak Shamir has adamantly resisted sending the Taba issue to binding arbitration. Mr. Shamir said Wednesday, however, that he had agreed to sending Mr. Tamir to Cairo.

A political opponent of Peres acknowledged in an interview this week that a summit meeting between Peres and Mubarak could help counteract the rising tide of anti-Arab sentiment in Israel that is making negotiations with Jordan increasingly unlikely.

Such a meeting could also help Peres weather the political storm that will probably ensue here if the Americans decide to meet a Palestinian-Jordanian delegation in Amman, Western sources said.

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