Israel Ends Jews' Biblical Claim on the West Bank

An analysis of the peace pact being signed in Washington today explains Rabin's historic trade with Arabs

TODAY'S Mideast signing ceremony at the White House marks a historic compromise: broader Arab acceptance of Israel in return for a sizable chunk of what many religious Jews regard as the Biblical land of Israel.

The accusation by the Israeli right wing that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is capitulating to Palestinian demands without making any gains - and the retort of Islamic militants that PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat has sold out to Israeli demands - merely underscores that there has been genuine give and take.

The second phase of the Israel-PLO peace accord, which marks the beginning of the end of 28 years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank, is a year behind schedule. The last two years has seen an escalation in violent clashes between Arabs and Jews and the horror of suicide bombings by Islamic militants. (Why Syria, the next link in peace for Israel, stalls talks, Page 6.)

But the constant bickering, walkouts, and high drama that led to the latest agreement are not able to obscure a moment in history: a compromise agreement by the leaders of two peoples to differ, to live apart. ''Sometimes, in the real world, moments of messianic importance can look like trivial events,'' says political scientist and philosopher Shlomo Avineri of Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

The bickering and high drama are not able to obscure a moment in history - an agreement to differ, to live apart.

The signing of the accord between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, at the some spot two years ago, followed months of secret negotiations in Oslo, Norway.

''The Oslo agreement was a historical breakthrough in that it marked the mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO,'' Professor Avineri said.

''But Oslo could have been nothing more than a piece of paper. This [latest] agreement is a breakthrough because it marks the implementation of [the Oslo agreement].''

Despite an upsurge of militancy on both flanks, the broad majority of Palestinians and Israelis is coming to accept that the fruits of negotiation and compromise come in stages.

Palestinians are beginning to realize that they are moving closer to a Palestinian state and Israelis that they are edging closer to living in peace - albeit a cold peace - with their Arab neighbors.

The big-bang fantasy of a Palestinian state is becoming a creeping reality.

The relief that comes with shedding the burden of occupation is already evident in the eyes and smiles of young Israeli soldiers at checkpoints on the West Bank.

In interviews granted to Israeli media around the signing of the agreement in Taba, Egypt, last weekend, Mr. Rabin launched a marketing campaign to sell his vision to the Israeli public and advance the slow-moving clock of history in the Middle East.

His central message was that to be a good Jew, or a good Zionist, it was no longer necessary to hang on to the West Bank.

The two main ideological tenets of nationalist and religious Jews - that the West Bank is an inalienable part of the Biblical land of Israel and that the 135,000 Jewish settlers there are vital to Israel's security - had all but evaporated, Rabin said.

''For me, the pioneers today are not the settlers,'' Rabin said.

The pioneers were Jews from the Diaspora who migrated to Israel and ''advance our society and economy.''

''This is the fulfillment of the Zionist dream, to bring more Jews to Israel, to achieve the goal whereby more than half of the Jewish people live in the Jewish state,'' Rabin said, portraying himself as the new Zionist.

''The ultimate targets for me are to maintain Israel as a Jewish, not a binational state; to agree to the existence of a Palestinian entity living in peace alongside Israel ... and to create a separation between Israel and this entity.''

Rabin's marketing dilemma is that to sell the deal to Israelis he has to belittle Arafat's achievements.

''In one sense it is a major victory for Israel and a minimalist settlement for Arafat,'' Avineri said.

''But the fact is that Arafat is more in control of the situation than he was a year ago. ''He has done a relatively good job given the impossible circumstances under which he is working,'' Avineri said.

Arafat, whose financial handouts from the Arab world had all but dried up after the 1991 Gulf war, has consolidated an astonishing political turnabout while at the same time moving closer to the prospect of an independent Palestinian state.

Cautiously funded by Western donors, and increasingly beholden to Western demands, Arafat has consolidated his foothold in Gaza and Jericho and appears to have made headway in defusing the political threat from Islamic militants with a skillful mix of carrot and stick.

Said Kaanan, chairman of the board of trustees of the Independent Center for Palestinian Research and Studies in Nablus, says that the latest agreement marked a radical change between Palestinians and Israelis that was historically irreversible.

It was also predictable if one had followed the statements of Rabin, he says.''Since the Oslo accord was signed two years ago, Rabin has been true to his word. He has implemented most of the things he promised,'' Mr. Kaanan says.

Rabin has succeeded in maneuvering Arafat into a position where his own political life depends on his ability to counter terrorism from Islamic militants in his own midst.

''If Rabin loses the next election, he has his pension and his retirement to look forward to.

''If Arafat loses the Palestinian election, he is finished. His life hangs on the thread of terrorism,'' Kaanan says.

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