Calls for annexing West Bank rise in Israel. Issue may sharpen during election campaign, but outright moves unlikely

The future of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip is the central issue of this fall's Israeli national election campaign, but the right wing wants it settled now. Two weeks after Jordan's King Hussein renounced sovereignty over the West Bank, the extreme right is stepping up demands that Israel promptly annex the area, home to an estimated 1 million Palestinians. Residents of the occupied territories have waged an eight-month campaign to end Israel's 21-year occupation.

On Sunday, leaders of Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley called on the government to annex that part of the West Bank. And the extreme right-wing ``Temple Mount Faithful'' demonstrated on Sunday, proclaiming Israel's sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza.

Few here expect pressure from the right to produce practical political action.

``I don't expect the annexation demand to become a major issue,'' said parliament member Dan Meridor, a Likud moderate. ``Both major parties are battling for the floating vote in the middle, and can hardly base their appeals on demands by fringe groups.''

Still, the psychological effect of the demands for annexation may be to sharpen Likud rhetoric in the battle for votes with the Labor Party this fall.

A sign of this came when a Cabinet meeting last week erupted into a shouting match between Likud and Labor officials.

Geula Cohen, a parliament member and leader of the extreme right-wing Tehiya Party, argues that her movement's demands for annexation have already begun winning Likud support.

Ms. Cohen argues that King Hussein's decision has invalidated the main campaign premises of both Labor and Likud. She says there is no longer the ``Jordanian option'' espoused by the Labor Party, because Hussein has disqualified himself from talks on the West Bank's future. For the same reason, she says, there is no chance for Palestinian autonomy under the 1978 Camp David accords as advocated by Likud, because those accords had envisioned a role for Jordan.

``Sovereignty over the area is no longer claimed by any state, and a vacuum can only be filled by the party which says, `This is mine.' It's either us or the Palestine Liberation Organization,'' she says.

On Sunday, Israel announced new measures to prevent the PLO from taking over Jordan's West Bank role, including closing conduits for PLO money by tightening controls on bank transactions, and keeping a closer watch on international aid organizations in the territories.

The call for annexation has been picked up in the Likud, where Trade Minister Ariel Sharon has put forward a plan for annexing areas of Jewish settlement and so-called strategic regions not heavily populated by Palestinians.

Another Likud minister, Yitzhak Modai, has called for piecemeal application of Israeli law in the West Bank and cancellation of the Israeli military government and Jordanian law in force. Jordan's renunciation of sovereignty over the West Bank means its laws no longer apply, and Israel is no longer an occupier of a foreign country, according to Mr. Modai.

Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir appears personally to favor annexation, but under a different name. ``I am against annexation, because you don't annex something which is already yours,'' Shamir was quoted as saying at the Cabinet meeting. ``I'm for applying Israeli law because the land of Israel is ours, and one has to speak about applying the law to all parts of the land of Israel.''

(``Applying Israeli law'' is what Israel termed its annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967 and the Golan Heights in 1981.)

Shamir's office later denied that he had supported annexation, which as a matter of public policy he rejects.

``We honor our international obligations, and we shall not take any unilateral step like imposing Israeli rule on territories that are subject to negotiations,'' Shamir said in a radio interview.

The difference between Shamir's public and private comments characterizes the tension in the Likud between the party's ideological commitment and practical platform. The Likud favors ultimate Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza, but it has not pressed these demands in recognition of international constraints and the split within Israel.

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