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Behind the Headlines Popularity of Begin’s Policies is Declining Among the Sephardim

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Although Premier Menachem Begin still enjoys great personal popularity in Israel, the popularity of his government’s policies is declining, especially among the poor Sephardic communities which have been the backbone of Likud’s support.

This was the analysis of two Israeli political scientists in a discussion arranged by the American Enterprise Institute here last week. The two professors spoke on the condition that their comments were not for attribution.

This new development has come about because the Sephardi poor are linking spending for the war in Lebanon and investment in West Bank settlements with the decline in social spending, one of the political scientists explained. He noted that Israel is now suffering problems in the health, welfare and educational systems, as well as in the overall economy. This has effected the very poor people who have been the chief supporters of the Begin government, he added.

SEPHARDIM ACTIVE IN PEACE NOW

The professor noted that only last September, when some 400,000 people protested the government’s then refusal to appoint a commission of inquiry into the massacres at the Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut, almost all of the demonstrators were Ashkenazim. But now, he said, Sephardim have emerged among the Peace Now protestors on the West Bank and in Jerusalem.

The slogans they carry say “More money for solution of social, domestic and communal problems; less money for settlements, less money for the military,” the professor said. He predicted that Israel was at the beginnings of “new groupings” in its political system.

OPPOSITION TO RETAINING THE TERRITORIES

At the same time, the two political scientists stressed that the “trend” in Israel has been “against” the government’s policy of “holding on to the territories,” the West Bank and Gaza, and moving toward the Labor Party’s position of “repartitioning” them.

On the other hand, the professors said, the majority of Israelis would oppose any repartition of Jerusalem with perhaps only five percent supporting such a move. But they added they believed that if a “sophisticated” way could be worked out to give the Arab sections control of their own daily administration most Israelis would support it.

The two professors predicted “a moment of truth” for the Begin government should King Hussein of Jordan decide to join the peace talks. They said that Begin would insist that the Camp David accords be adhered to and that only autonomy be discussed in the first stage of the negotiations.

U.S. RAPPED FOR ‘LACK OF CLARITY’

The United States was criticized for a “lack of clarity” in its policy toward the Mideast by the two professors. One of the professors said that “contradictory” policies have been offered by Washington.

As an example, he noted that at one time the U.S. linked the autonomy negotiations to the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon and then the two issues were “decoupled.” He said it still was not clear whether the U.S. wants the negotiations, if Hussein joins the talks, to begin slowly or to start with the discussion of the “end results.” He said this means that Israeli groups who want to push a position around a particular U.S. “line” cannot do so since it might change the next day.

The other professor said some Israelis would like to see the U.S. exert “very delicate and sensitive” pressure on Israel but not in a way to “create the impression” it is trying to “compel” Israel. He explained this could be done by showing the “implications” and “alternatives” of acting or not acting in a particular way.

ISSUE OF LEBANON

In discussing Lebanon, one of the professors said that up to now, Israel had started preemptive wars only when it had no choice, but in Lebanon it established a new policy of acting when Israel was strong and conditions favorable. He said the war became political, especially from the start of the siege of Beirut.

He said this policy was due to the personality of former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon but said it also had the support of Begin, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Chief of Staff Gen. Rafael Eitan. But, he added, there has now been a “partial retreat” from what he called these “new tendencies.”

But he said the Lebanese war showed that there was no longer a “consensus” in Israel on all military actions. He said this lack of consensus is one of the reasons Defense Minister Moshe Arens has been pressing for a speedier withdrawal from Lebanon.

But the professors indicated that one of the prices for Israel’s withdrawal will be the continued presence of Maj. Saad Haddad’s Christian militia in south Lebanon. They said that Haddad will be the “alternative to the Israeli presence” since Israel does believe it can yet rely on the Lebanese army for security in south Lebanon.

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