Talk About Settlements

AGREEMENTS over land and security in the Middle East - particularly between Israel and the PLO - are bound to have some flaws. Last Friday's massacre of Arabs in a Hebron mosque by a Jewish settler from America brings front and center the problem of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, and the mistake of not dealing with them in some way in current negotiations.

The peace process is crucial and must proceed despite tragedy. Israelis are getting used to a handshake with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. But adjustments are still needed.

How to have real peace in the West Bank and Gaza when hostile and heavily armed minority groups occupy and control the land is a problem. Friday's killer, Baruch Goldstein, has been portrayed as a lone-ranger lunatic, acting on his own, as if there were no larger context for his deeds. Certainly this man reflects nothing remotely resembling Israeli mainstream thinking. Yet he does reflect radical sentiments of a large minority of settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. Given the demand inside the Palestinian community for real autonomy in the territories following the White House handshake - and the strong desires of Jewish settlers not to cede authority - Dr. Goldstein was acting out a scenario already in the minds of many.

Violence by both sides contributes to powerful fears. Radical Palestinians have their own ugly scenarios. The question is, how to move past them?

Apologies by Yitzhak Rabin and efforts to expel some radical settlers are welcome. News that Tel Aviv may disarm some settlers is even more encouraging. Yet in practical terms these may be efforts to turn a mountain into a molehill. In Gaza, 3,000 Jewish settlers, mostly from somewhere else, occupy 25 percent of that tiny strip of land. Some 850,000 Palestinians are crowded onto the rest, giving settlers 84 times the space per capita of the native population that lives impoverished under complete Israeli control: subject to curfew, arbitrary arrest, and economic sanctions.

In September's Declaration of Principles, Mr. Arafat, politically weak and losing power, agreed to put off the settlements issue. However, the Declaration does not preclude the settlements issue from being discussed earlier. This is, after all, an agreement, and a vague one - as subsequent arguments and missed deadlines show.

The White House wants the negotiations to proceed in Washington. As with the Sarajevo massacre Feb. 5, President Clinton hopes the tragedy can be a catalyst for peace. We hope the classic use of tragedy - learning deeper lessons - will be evident.

The Hebron massacre suggests that along with protecting Palestinians, the price of peace requires a vision of real autonomy for them.

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