Palestinian Self-Rule Looms As First Test for Netanyahu

Israel and Jordan could unite to block creation of Palestinian state

Faced with a weekend Arab summit in Cairo and a planned visit by US Secretary of State Warren Christopher next Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must move quickly on the pressing Palestinian issue, which looms as the first item on Israel's diplomatic plate.

Shortly after assuming office Tuesday, Netanyahu began to examine transferring only limited police powers to Palestinians in the West Bank city of Hebron - in contravention of earlier Israeli promises to leave most of the city by mid-June.

Both Palestinian and Israeli observers say that Netanyahu will probably seek to modify the 1993 accord signed by the Labor government of former Prime Minister Shimon Peres. The accord grants Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority security responsibility in Arab areas of Hebron, while retaining Israeli control in the Jewish settler enclaves in Hebron's center city and neighboring Kiryat Arba.

"It's out of the question," that Netanyahu will concede overall security to Palestinians in Hebron, said Kiryat Arba lawyer Elyakim Ha'etzni.

"What will be, in my opinion, up for discussion, would be a local [Arab] police power to collect taxes and catch robbers," said Mr. Ha'etzni, a former right-wing Knesset member close to the new government coalition.

Hebron's Palestinian Mayor Mustapha Natshe immediately condemned talk of revising the accord as a violation of Israeli-PLO agreements.

Thursday's flaring of the debate on Hebron followed Netanyahu's inauguration two days earlier. That ceremony was marred both by the sulking of hard-line Likud figure Ariel Sharon, who hadn't been given a Cabinet post, and Palestinians railing at Netanyahu's promises to "strengthen" West bank Jewish settlements and retain the Army's freedom of action in Palestinian self-rule enclaves.

"The guidelines of the government are unacceptable, a declaration of war," said senior Palestinian Authority official Abu Ala.

But top aides hinted that Netanyahu will try to sweeten his tough position by adopting a more "open" policy toward tens of thousands of Palestinian workers who've been barred from Israel since the suicide bus bombings.

In what appeared to be the first hint of a more open policy, Israel's Army Thursday began permitting Palestinian trucks to move between Palestinian self-rule areas in the West Bank and Gaza for the first time in three months. Family visits to Palestinian prisoners held inside Israel were also resumed, and Israel said it would reissue press passes to Palestinian journalists who have been denied entry.

Sources say that Netanyahu is banking on the idea that average Palestinians, suffering from unemployment rates upwards of 50 percent, are more concerned about regaining access to jobs in Israel than with more symbolic political gains for Mr. Arafat's Gaza-based Palestinian Authority.

"The Likud won't offer free access, so they might offer to ease the closure instead," observed Palestinian activist Ghassan Andoni.

But the Palestinian Authority would likely chafe at this approach, seeing it as aiming to deepen Palestinian economic and political dependency - while denying independence.

Also, Palestinians aren't sure how effective the Arab summit will be in rallying to their cause. Some foresee a reconciliation between longtime rivals Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Palestinian Authority President Arafat - in a move by Arafat to muster Arab clout against new Israeli policies.

But others believe that individual Arab national interests will obscure the Palestinian issue - as they have so often in the past.

"There's a lot of frustration and disappointment, not just because of Bibi [Netanyahu], but also because of the Arab stance," said Mohammed Wahiedi, Palestinian journalist in Gaza

Palestinians are mostly concerned that Jordan and Netanyahu may find a common interest in preventing the creation of a Palestinian state. Such a state poses a long-term threat to the stability of Jordan's Hashemite monarchy, which is ruling over a population that is more than 50 percent Palestinian.

In this scenario, Netanyahu could encourage Jordan to reassert its influence on the West Bank, which Jordan controlled prior to Israel's 1967 occupation, said Professor Shlomo Ben Ami, an Israeli historian and a Labor Party Knesset member.

"You may have a fairly curious situation," he said, "whereby King Hussein may be thinking of doing business with Netanyahu because Hussein never liked the Oslo process," in which Palestinians and Israel struck a deal for Palestinian self-rule. Hussein didn't like Oslo, Mr. Ami said, because "it had a Palestinian emphasis."

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