Lifeboat Politics: Israel And PLO Battle Extremes

FOLLOWING a month of violence, renewed talks by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat show the two men may be realizing they need each other more than ever.

The clock is ticking for both. Mr. Rabin must prove to an embittered right wing before elections in 1996 that his steps toward peace have not made Israel more vulnerable to Arab extremism. For Mr. Arafat, each delay in implementing the peace accord with Israel plays into the hands of his radical Palestinian opponents who say he is little more than Israel's ``puppet.''

But Tuesday's decision by Israel and the PLO to speed up implementation of their ailing 14-month-old peace accord might not be enough to reverse growing disillusionment within both camps. Analysts said both leaders were heavily constrained by their constituencies from taking substantive decisions that would enable Arafat to shake off a perception of impotence.

The two leaders agreed to speed up the delayed transfer of self-rule to the West Bank and declared the Gaza-Jericho phase of self-rule complete.

``The decision to come to an agreement with you is a strategic decision,'' Rabin reportedly told Arafat at the 90-minute meeting at the Erez checkpoint to Gaza.

The one ray of hope emerging from the meeting was Rabin's apparent willingness to enter substantive negotiations with Arafat on expanding self-rule beyond Gaza and Jericho and to hold simultaneous talks on the withdrawal of Israeli troops and Palestinian elections.

Israeli Environment Minister Yossi Sarid made clear after the meeting that elections for a Palestinian self-rule council would not be held until next year, but insisted that the process was entering a ``critical new phase.''

``The latest commitments are chiefly procedural and don't involve re-deployment of Israeli troops,'' said Dore Gold, a Tel Aviv University strategic analyst.

``All you need is a couple of terrorist attacks and the brakes will be on again,'' Mr. Gold said.

In terms of the agreement, responsibility for tourism and welfare by Monday will be transferred to the Palestinian Authority - set up in July to administer self-rule - and health and taxation will be handed over by the end of the month.

But the key issue of withdrawing Israeli troops from the West Bank ahead of Palestinian elections and the status of about 120,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank was postponed to a meeting to be held within two weeks.

But Rabin refused to set a timetable for further progress.

``I cannot assess how many months these negotiations will take,'' he said.

Rabin also announced easing of the controversial closure of Gaza following last month's bus bombing in Tel Aviv that claimed 23 lives.

Israel will allow 10,000 Palestinian workers to join the 13,000 presently allowed to work in Israel, but about 37,000 others, who depend on employment in Israel for their livelihood, will still remain barred from Israel.

The decision falls far short of the open borders being demanded by potential investors who criticized Israel's arbitrary closure of the self-rule territories at a recent regional economic conference in Casablanca, Morocco, that urged regional integration in the Middle East and North Africa.

Both Israeli and Palestinian commentators have begun to talk openly about the possible collapse of the accord in recent weeks following a wave of Islamic militancy and a rapidly deteriorating economic and social situation in the Gaza Strip.

Arafat's growing problems culminated last weekend when he was jeered and cursed by mourners at a funeral of Hani Abed, the slain activist-leader of the militant Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement.

Deteriorating conditions in the deprived Gaza Strip, home to some 1 million Palestinians, were highlighted Tuesday by an outbreak of cholera that has claimed one life, and afflicted 20 others, the chief of health in the Palestinian Authority said yesterday.

``What is really important now is to address the very serious economic problems in Gaza,'' Gold said.

Rabin cited the lack of funding from Western donor countries for the Palestinian self-rule territories as the reason for delays in the full implementation of early empowerment in the West Bank.

``I think that Rabin realizes that his fate is tied to that of Arafat's but both men lack the confidence in their constituencies to take the process forward,'' Gold said.

``The reality is that the Israel-PLO accord is structurally difficult to implement.''

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