Israeli Opposition Fails to Adopt Unified Stance on Rabin's PLO Deal

Fragmented and financially strained, Likud struggles to respond

ONLY now recovering from their shock at last week's revelation of a secret peace accord with the Palestinians, right-wing Israeli opposition groups are finding it hard to focus their attacks on the treaty.

And at a mass demonstration on Tuesday night, the first major protest against the agreement, opposition leaders appeared unable to mobilize the general public to the degree they had hoped.

``Until now it has been a surprise, we could not believe it, and the government wanted to do a blitzkrieg. That's why the opposition did not begin well,'' explains Zevulun Hammer, a leader of the National Religious Party (NRP), one of the demonstration's organizers.

The NRP is especially strong among Jewish settlers in the occupied territories, who feel particularly threatened by the prospect of Palestinian self-rule. Settlers were prominent among the protesters on Tuesday, and disputed the police's crowd estimate of 50,000, claiming it was closer to 250,000.

But ordinary, secular Israelis living inside Israel's old borders were clearly a minority, disappointing the settler groups, religious organizations, and right-wing opposition parties that have banded together to oppose Israel's peace accord with the Palestinians announced 10 days ago. (US role in pact, Page 2.)

The opposition is hampered by more than the general sense of shock that has afflicted all Israelis. Its leading political party, the Likud, has proved unable to adopt a clear position, despite hopes that the election of Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this year as party leader would end factionalism.

Leading Likud figures have responded in different ways to news of the peace accord, and then set about attacking each other as much as the Labor government. On the right of the party, former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon has accused Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of being a traitor, and said that any future Likud government would revoke the deal.

This aroused the ire of Benjamin Begin, for whom the government's legitimacy cannot be questioned, while another former Likud Cabinet minister, Ronni Milo, has said he will vote in favor of the accord when it is brought to the Knesset (parliament) for approval.

``There is no strategy of the right because the right is not one camp,'' laments Elyakim Haetzni, a settler leader. ``The whole political establishment of the right is in disarray.''

The Likud is also heavily in debt and almost bankrupt, complicating efforts to mount a serious campaign. Although Habad, an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect, is providing funds, its prominent role in the opposition coalition reinforces a religious tone that does not appeal to the majority of Israelis.

The message of the agreement's critics is clear: ``The Land of Israel is in Danger,'' as countless banners at Tuesday's demonstration warned, because the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) will use the accord to build a hostile Palestinian state on Israel's doorstep.

The opposition's central demand is for immediate general elections, on the grounds that Mr. Rabin has no mandate to sign the agreement negotiated secretly with PLO officials over the past nine months.

``The government of Israel cannot sign an agreement that endangers the future of the Jewish homeland before bringing everything to a decision by the people,'' argues Ron Nahman, mayor of Ariel, a West Bank settlement.

The government, which has so far refused even to publish the text of its agreement with the Palestinians, is anxious ``to get everything worked out before the opposition has time to organize itself,'' as one official puts it. Rabin also seems keen to limit public debate of the deal to the Knesset, where he is almost certain of a majority.

(That majority could be endangered, however, if the ultra-orthodox Shas party withdraws from the governing coalition, as it was contemplating doing yesterday, after the Supreme Court ruled that party leader Aryeh Deri, indicted on corruption charges, must resign as interior minister.)

The opposition's goal, on the other hand, is ``to move the people,'' says Mr. Nahman. ``Rabin is relating to the opposition like a dictator,'' he complains. ``We shall show him that this is a democracy.''

But with Rabin saying openly that opposition demonstrations ``do not move me,'' there is a sense on the right that the battle may be lost already.

Mr. Netanyahu tried hard to dispel such defeatism in his speech on Tuesday night, insisting that ``the struggle has only just begun.'' But with Israeli and Palestinian officials hopeful that the Declaration of Principles outlining their peace treaty will be signed by Monday, there seems little the opposition can do to forestall it.

Instead, they are focusing their hopes on the two months of negotiations expected to follow the declaration's signature, that will work out practicalities of the accord. As details of the deal emerge, opposition leaders hope they will be able to mobilize more public support, playing on Israeli fears of a Palestinian police force, of a return of Palestinian refugees, and of PLO leader Yasser Arafat himself.

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