Israel's Election Plan

ISRAEL is making the rounds of Western capitals with a peace initiative that it describes as ``comprehensive'' - even though the specifics are missing. Calling United States support ``crucial'' in winning international acceptance for the initiative, Israel's foreign minister urges US officials not to ``get diverted into discussions and arguments about this or that minor detail.''

``Minor detail'' is a contradiction in terms in the Middle East, as Jimmy Carter learned from Menachem Begin. President Carter thought he had extracted a pledge from the then-Israeli prime minister not to establish more Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. Only after the ink was dry on the 1978 Camp David accords did Mr. Carter learn otherwise. The number of Israeli settlers has grown to 70,000 in about 150 settlements, and permanent control of the territories remains a priority of Israel's right wing - including the Likud-led government.

The latest Israeli proposal addresses a parallel priority: Bypassing the Palestine Liberation Organization. It calls for Palestinians in the occupied territories to elect negotiators. The details - who can vote, who can run, who will supervise the elections - can wait, the government decided. First it wants to get the world's agreement that the plan - mostly sight unseen - is an adequate peace initiative on Israel's part.

But with international backing prearranged, Israel could fault the Palestinians for not responding - and harshly crack down on the uprising. As a foretaste, Israel put the whole of occupied Gaza under curfew last week.

The curfew was lifted, but leaders of the intifadah have called a strike, and there are other troubling signs that both sides are hardening their positions and increasingly resorting to violence at a time when conflict resolution should be the goal.

At least one pro-PLO leaflet now exhorts Palestinians to kill an Israeli soldier or settler for every Palestinian lost in the fighting. In an interview published in Kuwait over the weekend, the head of a radical PLO faction called for the use of firearms. About 250 Muslim fundamentalists were detained and a cache of automatic weapons seized in Gaza a few days ago.

Police in Bethlehem were fired upon Monday. And in the first gun battle of the 17-month uprising, three Palestinians last week used grenades and guns to kill an Israeli soldier and wound seven more before they themselves were killed.

The resort to arms by Palestinians would compound the tragedy now unfolding daily, for Israel surely has the might to sit on the intifadah more than it has done so far (at a cost of 22 Israeli and nearly 500 Palestinian lives).

This leaves a situation in which the Israeli stick is all too familiar, but the carrot of negotiations is less easy to describe because of those ``minor'' details.

In seeking an end to the violence and a negotiated political resolution, the US and other third-party players should encourage the kind of compromise that has been hinted at by some Israeli officials - on matters of who can vote and international observers, for example. But it should be wary of the Israeli proposal as presented. It seems designed to preserve the status quo of occupation, which is no solution.

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