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Cabinet Debates Extending Autonomy to Palestinians in the Territories

The Cabinet was split Sunday over a proposal that Israel unilaterally extend autonomy to the Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The idea was floated by two Labor ministers, Gad Yaacobi and Moshe Shahal, as the caretaker Cabinet groped for a response to the surprise U.S. move to open talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The U.S. ambassador to Tunisia, Robert Pelletreau Jr., met Friday with four PLO representatives in Tunis, at the instructions of Secretary of State George Shultz.

Shultz’s decision last Wednesday that PLO chief Yasir Arafat had in fact met the American requirements for a dialogue, postulated since 1975, was a major diplomatic and political blow to Israel.

Yaacobi, who is minister for economic coordination, and Shahal, the energy minister, suggested “one-sided autonomy” for the Palestinians, even if they did not ask for or accept it.

Moshe Arens, a ranking Likud minister close to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, was reported by Israel Radio to favor the idea. Arens, however, denied the report and said he opposed such a move.

The two top Labor Party leaders, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, also oppose the move.

Peres said Israel must search out local Palestinian leaders who could represent the West Bank and Gaza Strip in negotiations for peace settlement.

He is on record as suggesting free elections in the territories to let the residents choose their representatives. But according to the best-informed opinion, anyone the Palestinians elected would have to have PLO approval.

Shamir, meanwhile, continued his bitter criticism of the American policy reversal. He called the decision to talk to the PLO erroneous. He claimed that Arafat has not changed his colors and that the PLO remains a terrorist organization dedicated to Israel’s destruction.

Shamir charged that the world wants Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That, according to him, would end chances for peace.

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