Israeli Government Hardens Stance on Peace

Jailing of Palestinian moderates seen as bid to ward off dialogue

OPERATION Desert Storm may have put the Arab-Israeli peace process on hold, but in Israel and the occupied territories, questions about the postwar era loom large. Until an end to the Gulf war is in sight, few are prepared to make concrete predictions, but there is a growing sense that the new era will bring change.

``We know for sure that the status quo since the 1967 [Arab-Israeli] war did not promote a settlement,'' says Danny Rubenstein, a senior columnist for the daily Haaretz.

``Now, there is an earthquake in the status quo in the area,'' he says. ``Those who preserve the status quo - which means the occupation - will be weaker and the chance for a solution will be much much better.''

The ``earthquake'' has yet to topple established Israeli and Palestinian attitudes about what is required for peace. If anything, the recent weeks have seen both sides retreating into well-fortified bunkers of belief.

The latest signals from the right-wing Israeli government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir suggest a significant hardening of its posture toward compromise.

Last week began with the detention without trial of a leading Palestinian moderate, on the grounds that he was spying for Iraqi intelligence, and ended with a proposal to bring the country's most extreme right-wing party into the government.

The detention of Sari Nusseibeh, a professor at Bir Zeit University, confirmed Palestinian suspicions, voiced before the coalition offensive against Iraq, that Israel would use war in the Gulf as a cover to crack down on the intifadah (Palestinian uprising). It also brought protests from left-wing Israeli politicians.

``Most of the pragmatic mainstream leadership of the Palestinian community here in the territories are now behind bars,'' says Dedi Zucker, a member of the Knesset (parliament) representing the Citizens Rights Movement. ``There's almost nobody that we can talk to, unless we would go to their prisons.''

Mr. Zucker suspects that the government is preparing for a time when the international community will demand that Israel enter a dialogue with moderate Palestinians.

PLO finished, official says

Government officials, for their part, argue that the position of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on the Gulf crisis has condemned the organization to oblivion.

``If we refused to talk with [PLO Chairman Yasser] Arafat before the war,'' says Health Minister Ehud Olmert, ``now that he has emerged as the staunchest supporter of [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein, I don't think that there will be one Israeli who will subscribe to the notion that we have to sit with him.''

The prospect of a dialogue with the PLO - never more than a remote possibility - receded still further with Mr. Shamir's invitation to Rehavam Zeevi to join the government as minister without portfolio. Moledet, Mr. Zeevi's party, advocates ``transfer'' (expulsion) of Palestinians from the occupied territories.

Shamir's invitation met opposition from several Likud ministers, including Mr. Olmert, Defense Minister Moshe Arens, and Foreign Minister David Levy.

Some government officials voiced concern that the move, hard on the heels of the Nusseibeh detention, would tarnish Israel's image at a time when the country is basking in international goodwill for its policy of restraint in the face of repeated missile attacks from Iraq.

That goodwill nevertheless seems likely, in the short term at least, to reduce pressure on Israel to take such unpalatable steps as opening a dialogue with the PLO. Mr. Levy has said he favors talking to Jordan, but Olmert says alternative Palestinian interlocutors do exist.

``I'm sure that there is a whole new generation in the territories that will have to emerge out of this war,'' he says. ``If there is any chance of peace at any time in the future, someone there must ask himself the question: How far longer can we go on with violence?''

If such a generation exists in the occupied territories, it has yet to show its face. Despite the jailing of Dr. Nusseibeh and others, almost all leading Palestinians still express support for the PLO.

``The PLO gains its legitimacy from the support of the Palestinian people,'' says Hanan Ashrawi, dean of English Literature at Bir Zeit. ``It doesn't gain it from how it is being perceived by Israel or the West. We do not allow others to chose our leadership.''

Palestinian sees setback

Palestinian lawyer Jonathan Kuttab says the PLO, and the Palestinian people, have suffered a setback during the Gulf crisis, but warns Israelis against complacency. ``Israel can never get security through superior military might,'' he says, arguing that Iraq's missile attacks have demonstrated that US technology and secure borders are not infallible.

``It is very paradoxical, but the Palestinians, weak as we are, are the only ones that can provide Israel with peace, because we're the only ones who can give them the legitimacy.''

Government officials acknowledge that Israel will be under pressure to make concessions once the Gulf war is over. But, says Olmert, there is also a belief that Israel's position will be better understood.

``The general direction of the Israeli policy will be to embark on a step-by-step policy ... starting probably with elections in the territories,'' Olmert says.

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