On to Hebron

Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat have met, shaken hands, and pledged to pursue peace. But will they be able to negotiate with anything like the mutual understanding and commitment to progress evident during the previous Israeli administration?

The first big test will be Hebron, the last sizable West Bank city that remains largely under the control of the Israeli military. The complicating factor in Hebron is the presence of 450 Israeli settlers - settlers who fervently defend their right to live there. That fervor has on occasion bred violent confrontation and bloodshed.

A compromise on Hebron was hammered out between Mr. Arafat and former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, but its implementation was thrown off schedule by the suicide bomb attacks in Israel earlier this year. Under the agreement, Israeli troops would redeploy to positions designed to protect the settlers' areas and guard the roads that connect them. Thus some of Hebron, including many of the city's 94,000 Palestinian inhabitants, would remain under Israeli control.

Such an arrangement would hardly constitute an abandonment of Hebron by Israel, as Israeli right-wingers assert. To fend off criticism within his own Likud party, however, Mr. Netanyahu may demand some adjustments in the deal, such as widened protective corridors between the settler enclaves in Hebron.

But he shouldn't demand too much. Israel ought to act quickly on the agreement, as the Palestinians, the peace brokers in Washington, and much of the Israeli public desire. Typical of the current peace process, the Hebron agreement takes ample account of Israeli security demands. In exchange, the Palestinian Authority gets control of much, if not all, of Hebron - another small step toward the Palestinian goal of self-government.

But such steps are abhorrent to some of Netanyahu's Likud colleagues. He has served notice he's going ahead with the obligations of the peace process despite vocal in-house opposition. That inclination must be vigorously encouraged by the Clinton administration.

There are indications the new Israeli leader has come to recognize the centrality of the "Palestinian track" toward peace. His actions, including troop redeployment in Hebron and loosened restrictions on Palestinian workers entering Israel, will reveal how committed he is to pursuing it.

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