ISRAELI Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin faced a delicate task as he dispatched negotiators to Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headquarters yesterday: how to disguise concessions to the Palestinians as initiatives in Israel's self-interest.
Since the United Nations Security Council called Friday for a ``temporary international or foreign presence'' in the Israeli-occupied territories to protect Palestinians in the wake of last month's Hebron mosque massacre, the Israeli government has been taking some discreet steps backward.
But those steps have drawn fierce criticism, notably from the opposition Likud Party, and they still have not proved sufficient to coax the PLO back into talks on limited self-rule in Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho. The PLO suspended the talks after Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein killed at least 30 Palestinians on Feb. 25 as they prayed.
A negotiating team led by Israeli Foreign Ministry Director-General Uri Savir left for Tunis yesterday to discuss with PLO leaders the nature of the ``international presence'' that will be invited and the operations' scope.
Mr. Savir said before leaving that he hoped to agree on a quick resumption of the autonomy talks, and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was reportedly planning to meet PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat later in the week, if the Tunis talks went well. Also due to arrive in Tunis today were Dennis Ross, head of the US Middle East peace team, and a senior Russian Foreign Ministry official.
Mr. Rabin indicated over the weekend that he is no longer insisting that Palestinian policemen be deployed initially only in Gaza and Jericho, as was foreseen under the Declaration of Principles that Israel and the PLO signed in Washington last September.
Instead, he suggested, Palestinian policemen could also patrol Hebron, so long as they answered to the Israeli authorities.
IN a conversation with Mr. Arafat Saturday, Rabin is said to have accepted an international presence such as that of the Red Cross in Hebron. This would mark a major departure from his earlier insistence that only economic aid donors be allowed to install themselves, and then only in Gaza and Jericho.
These moves prompted the opposition Likud Party to call yesterday for an emergency session of the Knesset (parliament), which is currently in recess, to debate what it called the government's betrayal of Jerusalem and Jewish settlers in Hebron.
The accusation over Jerusalem stemmed from the government's decision not to protest too vociferously against a clause in Friday's Security Council resolution, which described Jerusalem as part of the occupied territories.
But it is precisely Rabin's concern to keep Jerusalem's future off the agenda that might prompt him to satisfy the PLO by moving against the 450 settlers in Hebron, observers here suggest.
``To get Jerusalem out of the picture, he will get rid of the settlers in Hebron,'' predicts Danny Ben-Simon, political commentator for Davar, a daily linked to the ruling Labor Party.
But the government is anxious that any such move be seen as an independent Israeli decision, taken on its merits, rather than as a concession to PLO demands.
Any decision to move settlers would be made ``based on Israeli logic and security needs,'' Mr. Peres said over the weekend. ``We are asking ourselves out loud how to organize ourselves, not in order to appease anyone, but to ensure the security of all residents,'' he argued.
``If Rabin presents [evacuating Hebron settlers] as a security issue, a matter of their life or death, he will have all the Cabinet, most of the parliament, and most Israelis behind him,'' Mr. Ben-Simon says.