Rabin's Task: the Settlers

SATURDAY is the deadline, and Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are trying to give the semblance, at least, of meeting it. Yet their efforts to agree on expanding the territory controlled by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority are still deeply at cross-purposes.

July 1 was to be the date for clearing a path toward Palestinian elections in Gaza and the West Bank. That legitimizing exercise is crucial to Palestinian popular rule and to the future of peace in the region. But it can hardly proceed under the barrels of Israeli guns.

The agreement to begin the Israeli withdrawal with a few northern West Bank cities is positive so far as it goes. But big questions remain: How will election preparations proceed in the still-occupied bulk of the West Bank? Will any violent act by Palestinian radicals prompt a redeployment of Israeli troops?

From the Israeli standpoint, the troops can't go as long as thousands of Jewish settlers, in need of protection, remain. That's a fundamental dilemma, and it's hard to see how it can be removed unless the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin gets a lot tougher with settlers than it has been so far.

When radical settlers rushed to get a new foothold recently not far from the northern towns proposed for Israeli withdrawal, the move was declared illegal and police were sent in. The settlers sidestepped the police, who reportedly lacked clear orders, and still remain on their hilltop.

Nobody expects the removal of established settlements any time soon. Many will have to coexist nonviolently with Palestinian neighbors over the long term. But to allow continued land-grabbing? That undercuts all premises of peace.

The talks sound slightly optimistic notes, but in the background are violent West Bank confrontations over Palestinian prisoners, as well as land seizures. Can the promised elections, hopefully to be scheduled for this year, be held in this environment?

A positive answer to that question depends on cool, tough thinking on both sides of the Middle East's most fundamental divide. Specifically, it depends on Mr. Rabin's readiness to squarely face the settler issue.

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