West Bank: core of Middle East conflict. Violence threatens to undermine moves toward settlement

The West Bank issue, once seen as a potential bridge for Mideast peace, threatens to undermine current moves toward an Arab-Israeli settlement. The leaders of Israel and Jordan, in separate visits to Washington within the last month, have signaled fresh interest in exploring Mideast peace.

Yet the West Bank -- Item 1 on any serious Arab-Israeli negotiating agenda -- is increasingly gripped by the inertia of conflict.

The recent violence there is a reminder that at the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict lies the question of the Palestinians. These are Arabs who for generations have lived on the land that, in 1948, became the modern state of Israel -- expanded since by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip near Sinai after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The Palestinians have never had a state, and their leadership is divided. But all evidence is that they still can exert at least veto power in any nego tiating move by Israel and Jordan.

Also complicating any fresh initiative is the heightened tension between Israel and Egypt -- signatories, in 1979, of history's only formal Arab-Israeli peace treaty.

In Washington, President Reagan remains less actively engaged in Mideast diplomacy than was President Jimmy Carter. Especially since the failure of its Lebanon policy, the Reagan administration has signaled that the parties directly involved in the Mideast dispute must make real progress in narrowing differences before the United States will plunge into any new initiative.

Their recent dovish statements aside, observers here say, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Jordan's King Hussein must do two things to give peace a chance.

The first is to agree to negotiate with each other -- a hitch which has defied resolution by Hussein and a succession of Israeli leaders for more than a decade.

The second is to find at least sufficient common ground to have something to talk about -- notably on the West Bank issue.

In addition to rising tension in the territory, the past year has seen signs of grating differences among rival Israeli and Arab visions of how to achieve eventual peace there.

Both of the West Bank's most recent tenants -- Israel and Jordan -- are also beset by internal political problems that make it hard for their leaders to take the kinds of risks peacemaking must entail.

King Hussein rules a country, the majority of whose citizens are native Palestinians. He cannot ignore the rise of Palestinian nationalism since the 1967 war and the emergence of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Al-Fatah guerrilla group on its heels.

Prime Minister Peres heads a misleadingly entitled ``national unity'' government with the rival, right-wing Likud bloc of retired former Premier Menachem Begin. By a ``rotation'' agreement, Likud chief and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir is to get Peres's job about a year from now.

Against this background, the recent statements from King Hussein and Peres have impressed even hard-boiled skeptics among Mideast analysts by their extent and consistency.

The Jordanian monarch said publicly in Washington that he was ``prepared to join all parties in pursuing a negotiated [Arab-Israeli] settlement, in an environment free of belligerent and hostile acts.''

Foreign diplomats attach equal importance to the King's relatively restrained approach on a number of recent Arab or international moves to condemn Israel -- notably since its bombing of the Palestine Liberation Organization's headquarters in Tunisia on Oct. 1.

Hussein also sided publicly with Britain in its dispute with a PLO official whom the British said had reneged on a pledge to formally recognize Israel's right to exist. The pledge was to precede a milestone meeting between the British Foreign Secretary and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation which was scheduled for last Monday but abruptly cancelled.

Peres issued remarks, en route his current US visit, praising Hussein's recent approach as a change from past Jordanian policy. The statement coincided with a front-page story last Wednesday in Israel's respectable daily, Haaretz, implying that Peres may have met secretly with the Jordanian monarch about a week earlier. Predictably, the Likud sniped at Peres back home, charging he was fixing to make concessions his ``national unity'' partners could not permit.

The Israeli prime minister has said he feels Jordan is truly serious about making peace and should come forward for direct talks.

Particularly amid signs that Peres's economic austerity program is finally reducing the inflation rate, the prime minister's inner circle has been hinting he might opt to call early elections in search of a widened leadership mandate instead of making good on ``rotation'' with Likud's Mr. Shamir.

In the opinion polls, although these have proved notoriously misleading in recent Israeli political history, Peres's standing far outstrips Shamir or anyone else as preferred prime minister. And so close was last year's election, that even if Peres' Labor Party gains only a few seats in parliament in fresh elections, it might still put together a coalition without Likud.

But election or no election, in Israel serious snags in any Israel-Jordan peace process are already evident.

Peres has linked his comments for Hussein to an insistence that the King exclude Palestinians who are members of the PLO from such talks.

One reason for the Israeli leader's upbeat mood in Washington has been his sense that the recent hijacking of an Italian liner and alleged Palestinian breach of assurances in London have so battered the PLO's image that the rest of the world -- Hussein included -- will gladly cut the organization out of any Mideast negotiating process.

The King, despite his implicit slap at the PLO over the recent London mix-up, has so far seemed either unwilling or unable to do so. Western diplomats here say he will not do so now either. The PLO, while weakened by the war in Lebanon and its recent crises, can still credibly claim recognition among most Palestinians as symbol and spokesman for their national aspirations.

Unless Hussein can be confident of getting so good a deal from Israel on the West Bank as to preemptively silence all Arab critics, Western diplomats feel, he remains unlikely to break with the PLO altogether. ``He needs,'' says one diplomat, ``Palestinian cover.''

The message of recent West Bank tension is that so difficult and divisive are the issues there that no one, neither Hussein nor Peres, is likely to get the deal he wants.

One issue is central: Whose land is it?

By Israeli standards, Peres is a moderate on this question. He has never presented control of the West Bank as an historical, or Biblical, imperative that some settlers base their claims on.

One negotiating option would be the traditional Labor Party approach of ``territorial compromise'' on the West Bank.

But what territory would be compromised?

Israeli political analysts of all party stripes agree that the city of Jerusalem -- as formally annexed after the 1967 war -- would not be put on the ``territorial compromise'' table.

But Hussein's longtime position has been that real peace would require Israel's returning virtually the entire West Bank and the predominantly-Arab eastern portion of Jerusalem, holy to Muslims as well as Jews and Christians. Hussein ruled old Jerusalem and the West Bank until 1967.

``It's hard to see what would be in it for Hussein'' to make a territorial compromise, says political consultant Zeev Chafets. Jordanian officials have always held that such a compromise, among other things, would amount to their recognizing Israel's spoils of the 1967 war.

The other alternative would be to revive the Begin-era approach of ``functional'' rather than territorial compromise. That is, the West Bank would remain a single entity. Peace would entail a negotiated division of authority among Israel, the local Palestinians, and Jordan.

But so far at least, Hussein seems to feel that this would also amount to tacit recognition of Israel's capture of the territory on the battlefield.

As one Western economic expert, who has frequent dealings in Jordan, puts it, any such functionial compromise retaining a major say for Israel risks being seen by Hussein as ``merely taking down a fence on the Jordan River; a nonstarter.''

There have been specifically discouraging signs from the West Bank already.

In the past year, the Peres government has taken initial steps on a pledge to encourage peace prospects by improving the West Bank Palestinians' ``quality of life.'' Several officials in the Israeli administration there have been replaced by figures who, local Palestinians say, seem generally more pleasant to deal with. Various foreign-funded economic development projects -- including cooperatives, long politically taboo -- have received the requisite Israeli OK after long pre-Peres delays.

But the effects of the process on prospects for overall peace have been minimal so far. Peres told reporters recently that the upsurge of Arab violence had limited the scope of this quality-of-life campaign.

In local Palestinians' view, that is not the issue.

Typifying the response is lawyer Raja Shehadeh. He and other Palestinians are bitter over the scope of the Israeli crackdown in response to the upsurge in violence -- including revival for the first time in several years of the weapon of ``administrative detention'' without formal court hearing or trial, of suspected Arab troublemakers.

But, Mr. Shehadeh says, what most grates on Palestinians transcends both the recent cycle of violence and Peres's concept of quality of life. What matters is whether the Israelis plan to cede political control of the majority-Arab territory captured in 1967.

Shehadeh and other Palestinians see no evidence of this so far. Thus Peres's generally softer verbal line and his quality-of-life moves are seen, in Shehadeh's words, as a means by which Israel can secure both the West Bank and good relations with the rest of the world.

On Hussein's side of the West Bank equation, there have been equal difficulties.

Jordan's recent worry has been a gradual exodus of West Bank Palestinians who, as the economies of oil-rich Gulf nations lagged, increasingly sought employment across in Jordan.

Hussein's kingdom has economic challenges of its own, and the arrival of large numbers of West Bankers could only complicate them. The outflow, involving mostly young Palestinians recently out of school, also seemed likely to ease Israeli control of the West Bank in the long run.

So by the end of 1982 Jordan applied new, tougher regulations on Palestinians leaving the West Bank. But under Palestinian pressure from a West Bank that is bubbling with record youth unemployment -- up to 12,000 men out of work, according to the estimate of one Arab economic expert -- Jordan again eased entry formalities.

Jordan, say the Palestinians, had no choice.

This, indeed, is increasingly the refrain heard on all sides of the West Bank dispute.

Those who do speculate about peace agree that so complex and ossified is the conflict that only a psychological breakthrough along the lines of the 1977-79 process between Egypt and Israel can jolt things forward.

Two rival demonstrations -- one favoring concessions for West Bank peace, the other against them -- saw Peres off to the US a few days ago.

More striking than the rallies, however, was their size -- or lack of size. At most, 6,000 people took part in either event.

At least two of the various foreign embassies contacted in preparation of this Monitor series seemed to place the issue of conflict and conciliation on the West Bank in similar perspective.

No, officials from each mission explained apologetically, they weren't exactly up to date on various recent West Bank developments:

It had been summer. Staff was short. The West Bank was one issue left slack -- something unthinkable a few years back.

Last of three articles on the changing nature of the West Bank. The first two appeared Oct. 17 and 18.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.