How the rug was pulled from under Zafer al-Masri

AS a wealthy chamber of commerce sort, Zafer al-Masri operated comfortably in an environment of prudent risk-taking. When he accepted Israeli appointment as the mayor of Nablus this past January, the risks seemed prudent enough. But by the time of his March 2 murder the environment had changed so completely that close friends had warned him less than a week earlier that he had become a likely target for assassination.

Zafer al-Masri's death highlights the terrible vulnerability of West Bank and Gaza Strip residents to forces beyond their control and the awesome fragility of efforts to reach peace.

In 1976 an initiative undertaken by Defense Minister Shimon Peres permitted residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to elect their own municipal leaders. In what remains the only democratic test of strength the occupied territories have ever known, candidates supported by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were swept into office.

In 1982 most elected mayors were removed by the Begin administration, which then announced its willingness to appoint other Palestinian Arabs with no PLO links. The offer was summarily rejected throughout the territories, Palestinians insisting on the return of their elected officials or, alternatively, new elections. Israeli mayors were then appointed, some serving with admini-strative skill and efficiency, others like the one in Nablus, with little of either.

By 1985 the situations in many towns had become untenable. Public morale was sullen, municipal workers were often on strike, the delivery of services was an insult to human welfare.

With a new Israeli administration in office and with the February 1985 negotiating accord reached between Yasser Arafat and King Hussein, the prime minister and his defense minister, Yitzhak Rabin, were informed that Palestinians were again willing to accept mayoral appointments.

Masri was one of those to come forward.

A political moderate with close family links to the palace in Amman and secret personal ties to the Fatah wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization, his move had support in both power centers. Zafer al-Masri stressed that he was motivated solely by the desire to restore Palestinian control over municipal affairs to the maximum extent possible and was determined to shun involvement in the savage peace talks infighting.

This may have been enough to save Masri from his enemies had it not been for the subsequent work of his ``friends.''

The Israelis, to begin with, left Masri alone in his exposed position. Had Prime Minister Peres and Defense Minister Rabin moved promptly to appoint other Palestinian applicants in places like el-Bireh, Ramallah, and Hebron, Masri would not have remained a lonely symbol of Palestinian/Israeli cooperation. But the two Israelis thought more applicants would come forward once it became evident that the experiment in Nablus was working well.

Peres also chose this moment to advertise a so-called ``devolution'' scheme, Labor's version of the Likud's ``local autonomy,'' a formula most Palestinians regard as an unacceptible substitute for getting back their land.

The failure of the PLO to endorse Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 during February talks with Hussein was a genuine tragedy for Palestinians under Israeli occupation, which several of their representatives tried to avert.

With the peace process crumbling, many Palestinians quietly welcomed Hussein's Feb. 19 address in which the King declared a suspension of efforts to cooperate with the Palestine Liberation Organization to achieve negotiations. The widespread feeling was that this would increase constituency pressure on Arafat to change his stance on the key resolutions.

But when the King followed the address with a media campaign challenging the Arab League's 1974 Rabat des-ignation of the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and inviting Palestinians to bypass the Palestine Liberation Organization entirely, the lines of battle were drawn.

Even while operating under the hindrance of Israeli rule, the PLO was quickly able to demonstrate that in the occupied territories as elsewhere it alone is the reposi-tory for the national aspirations of Palestinians.

This was shown in town after town and on campus after campus where not a single reputable figure rallied to Hussein's cause. And it was shown when ``el Kuds,'' the most pro-Jordanian paper on the West Bank, rebuked the King's gambit.

In the process, Masri had become the unwilling symbol not only of an Israeli plan that ran contrary to his very fiber but also of a Jordanian move that he literally could have lived without.

Whether he was shot by the rejectionist Palestinian factions that have claimed credit for his murder or by some local thug is almost beside the point. Evil will have its way when good and just people leave the door ajar.

Prime Minister Peres discreetly offered to attend Masri's funeral, but the family just as discreetly asked all Israelis to stay away.

With commendable good sense, the occupation authorities remained far from the scene. In their absence, the affair became less a personal tribute to the mayor than the largest, most frenzied expression of Palestinian nationalism since 1967.

Hussein was cursed by demonstrators, Arafat exalted. A poignant message to all, but not in the end the sort of spectacle with which the quiet, gentle mayor would have chosen to associate himself.

C. Robert Zelnick is the ABC News chief correspondent in Tel Aviv.

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