ANGERED and embarrassed by a series of faux pas by their partner-in-peace Yasser Arafat, Israeli government officials are seeking to focus public attention on what Palestinians in the newly autonomous areas do, rather than on what their leader says.
``The true test'' of the autonomy regime in the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho ``is in the deeds,'' Israeli deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin insisted yesterday.
The Palestinian policemen are doing a good job on the ground, says Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. ``Up until now, I think their attitude is positive,'' he declared Wednesday evening. But Mr. Rabin had only scorn for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman, whom he described as ``a master of survival and a builder of nothing.''
Rabin's comment came as debate continued to rage in Israel over how far Mr. Arafat could be trusted in the wake of his pledge to wage a jihad, or holy war, to liberate Jerusalem from Israeli rule.
Arafat compounded Israeli misgivings about his reliability on Tuesday, publishing a decree in the East Jerusalem newspaper Al Quds repealing all the laws that Israel had imposed on the occupied territories since 1967.
That declaration, Rabin scoffed on Wednesday evening, was ``drivel,'' running counter to the autonomy agreement he signed with Arafat in Cairo on May 4, and thus inoperative.
Waiting for the Authority
Under the accord, all existing laws are to remain on the books unless abrogated by the Palestinian Authority, in coordination with Israel. This was one of the weakest points of the agreement, according to its Palestinian critics.
Since Arafat's declaration was not coordinated with the Israelis, and since the PLO leader has still not named the 24-member Authority that will have the power to legislate in the autonomous areas, the blanket repeal is ``irrelevant,'' said Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
``Irrelevant'' was also the word Palestinian leader Saeb Erakat, a future member of the Authority, used to describe the Israeli laws - decreed over the past 27 years in the form of military orders - that Arafat would like to abolish.
``The agreement itself, by dissolving the [Israeli] civil administration, makes the majority of the military orders irrelevant,'' he argued. ``They are dissolved, they automatically dissolve themselves.''
This somewhat cavalier attitude by Palestinian leaders to the letter of the accord has been matched this week by occasional ignorance among policemen of its terms.
Thus Palestinian policemen arrested three armed Jewish settlers who had gone to Jericho to change money, on the grounds that they were not permitted to carry their weapons in the autonomous area.
The agreement does allow Israelis to carry their guns in Jericho, and in line with Rabin's threat that ``a violation in the field in terror or security ... will not remain one-sided,'' the Israelis retaliated with their own violation of the accord.
The Israeli Army closed off Jericho to outsiders for 24 hours on Wednesday, using the sort of powers it has traditionally wielded during the occupation, but which it is no longer meant to have in the autonomy zones.
Preventing outsiders from entering the autonomous area ``is not in the agreement,'' one Israeli official acknowledged, ``but when there is something done by the other side that is not in the framework of the agreement, in excess or in violation of the agreement, a counter step of equal proportion can be taken by the Israeli side.''
That explanation did not wash with Dr. Erekat, the PLO's top civilian official in Jericho. ``Mr. Rabin has to make the change of mentality from occupier to neighbor,'' he demanded. ``If he continues to act as an occupier, the peace process is doomed.''
License and `chattering'
Rabin also appeared to be in breach of the Declaration of Principles (DOP) signed with the PLO last September in Washington, when he warned that he would not agree to broaden autonomy to the rest of the occupied territories unless he is happy with developments in Gaza and Jericho.
``In light of the chattering emanating from his [Arafat's] environment, we will now test the implementation of Gaza and Jericho before we implement ... any stage beyond Gaza and Jericho,'' the prime minister declared on Wednesday.
The DOP, however, does not give Rabin the option of choosing whether to extend autonomy. Instead, it sets a series of target dates for each step in the process, none of which has yet been met.
Although clearly wary of Arafat's intentions, and concerned that the PLO leader's statements could undermine Israeli public support for the peace process, Rabin has been full of praise for the Palestinian policemen who are so far the only symbols of autonomy. They have shown restraint in dealing with Jewish settlers in Jericho, he said, and were doing no more than their duty when they shot out the tires of an Israeli contractor in Gaza who had refused to stop at a roadblock.
But Israeli misgivings about Arafat himself remain deep-seated. ``Having won control of Gaza and Jericho,'' the mainstream daily Maariv editorialized this week, the PLO leader ``needs to control his impulses.''