AN Israeli settler killed an axe-wielding Palestinian who had attacked him yesterday in another of the violent incidents that are making a growing number of Israelis think again about their framework peace accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Two Jewish settlers have been killed in the past two weeks, victims of radical Palestinians opposed to the agreement on limited autonomy that Israel signed with the PLO two months ago.
In the wake of those killings, ``the scope of support [for the peace process] has diminished,'' Israeli Economy Minister Shimon Shitreet acknowledged yesterday.
But Israelis' deepening doubts about their peace accord with the Palestinians do not yet add up to a serious threat to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who has insisted during his current trip to the United States that the two sides have gone beyond the point of no return in autonomy negotiations.
Beyond the killings themselves, what has enraged Israelis was the revelation Friday that members of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's own Fatah faction of the PLO were responsible for the death of settler Haim Mizrachi on Oct. 29.
The Israeli Army had initially blamed the attack on the radical Islamic Hamas organization, allowing Mr. Rabin to maintain his oft-repeated argument that mainstream PLO factions were abiding by Mr. Arafat's pledge to forswear violence against Israelis.
Under heavy pressure from Israel and the United States, Arafat Saturday condemned Mizrachi's killing, saying that the PLO leadership in Tunis had known nothing about it. But the incident raised troubling doubts here about the extent of Arafat's authority over his people.
``Our strategic assumption was that Arafat had the power, that he was the partner,'' says Mr. Shitreet, one of the more hawkish members of Rabin's Cabinet. ``People are beginning to wonder about this now, but we still hope that our assumption was correct,'' he says.
The only development that could derail the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement now, argues Yaron Ezrachi, a political scientist at Hebrew University, ``is if the credibility of the PLO as a partner that can control security is seriously threatened. If the PLO doesn't demonstrate some form of control over the area ... this could have serious effects of delegitimizing the peace process for Israel,'' he warns.
``It is time for Arafat to start exerting his influence in the territories now,'' he argues.
Controlling political opponents in the territories from Tunis, before any sort of Palestinian police force is established, is clearly difficult for PLO leaders.
Only the mainstream Fatah faction, one wing of the Democratic Front, and the small People's Party support the agreement, and Fatah activists admit privately that as many as 30 percent of their members do not support Arafat's policies.
That leaves many opponents of the deal with Israel in the PLO, without counting Hamas, to which some dissident Fatah gunmen are beginning to shift their loyalties, according to Israeli intelligence officials.
Their policy of seeking to undermine the accord by attacking Israeli settlers is all the more effective given the supreme importance Rabin has attached to security.
``For Rabin, who has based the whole agreement on the security issue, and on putting an end to violence, these killings are a big blow,'' argues Danny Ben Simon, a commentator with the Labor Party-affiliated Davar daily.
Professor Ezrachi agrees: ``Rabin made a mistake in tying the success of the peace process to extremely short-term improvements in security in the territories.''
The Israeli public, however, appears more ready to accept that Palestinian violence will continue than even the government might have hoped.
A poll by the respected Guttman Institute just before the Israeli-Palestinian agreement was signed in Washington found that 75 percent of Israelis expected violence to increase as a result of the accord, even though most of them supported it.
And so far, the settlers do not appear to have succeeded in turning the deaths of their fellows to political advantage, as they try to force the government to abandon its negotiations with the Palestinians.
After every recent incident of violence by a Palestinian, settlers have gone on the rampage in retaliatory attacks on Palestinians and their homes and cars, which has not improved their image among ordinary Israelis.
``They appear more and more like a mob reacting with anger,'' says Ezrachi, ``and the middle class in Tel Aviv and Haifa doesn't like that. The settlers are shooting themselves in the foot.''
While the killings have clearly unnerved many Israelis in the political center, who are still unsure quite what to think about the peace process, ``it's a question of testing their patience rather than a serious challenge to Rabin,'' says Ezrachi.
``Since the opposition has not offered any proposals that would reduce the violence, if violence is the problem, the opposition is not the solution,'' he adds. ``That makes Rabin's position much stronger than daily shifts in public opinion would suggest.''