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News Analysis: Lahat Proposal for Palestinian State May Be Reflection of the Popular Mood

When Tel Aviv Mayor Shlomo Lahat proclaimed on television last Saturday night that the Palestinians deserved a state of their own, his colleagues in the Likud bloc were stunned.

It was not the type of statement to be making scarcely a day after the brutal murder of three Israelis in Jaffa by a pair of Palestinian laborers from the Gaza Strip.

But there are some who believe the immensely popular mayor, a proven vote-getter, may be ahead of his party in reading the popular mood — or at least the mood of middle-class Jews living on Israel’s coastal plain, whose closest contact with the intifada until very recently was the nightly news.

Lahat, who is widely known by his army moniker, “Chich,” is savvy when it comes to pleasing his constituents. After the Knesset passed two Orthodox-sponsored bills Monday to enforce modesty and Sabbath observance, the maverick mayor was on the air in minutes with his response.

The bustling places of entertainment in downtown Tel Aviv would not close on Friday nights, he vowed.

Lahat declared that, as mayor, he would do everything possible to ensure that all Tel Aviv residents, whatever their religious persuasion, could enjoy their Oneg Shabbat, in whatever way they saw fit.

It was a statement calculated to win the approval of at least 95 percent of the city’s population — all but the ultra-Orthodox.

And it posed no political problem, because the new legislation does not really threaten any change in Tel Aviv, barring a suicidal attempt by the small religious party representation on the City Council to force the mayor’s hand.

NEGOTIATIONS WITH ARAFAT

Lahat is usually unerring in making the kind of statement that solidifies his close rapport with the grass-roots bourgeoisie who comprise much of Tel Aviv’s population.

Indeed, Lahat’s favorable standing has advanced Likud’s fortunes in recent elections among ordinary, middle-of-the-road Israelis.

It was with great chagrin, therefore, that Likud loyalists watched Lahat tell the nation of the prime time television news Saturday night that the Palestinians ought to have the opportunity to set up their independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

To bring that about, the handsome, silver-haired reserve general recommended immediate negotiations with Yasir Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization.

Lahat said this was the only rational conclusion that could be drawn from the recent was of terrorist stabbings, culminating in the Jaffa incident last Friday.

The three victims of that attack, all factory workers, were hacked to death at an aluminum processing plant. Seasoned police officers were shaken by the savagery of the crime.

Lahat said he favored the death-penalty for such murderers. But he assured his audience that he “was not shooting from the hip” when he recommended a Palestinian state.

“This is a carefully thought-out position,” Lahat said. He said it was shared by his Likud colleague, the mayor of neighboring Herzliya, with whom he said he was working on a policy platform for a “new movement.”

Lahat’s bombshell raised demands from elements in Likud for his immediate ouster from the party.

Cooler heads prevailed in the Prime Minister’s Office. The line was put out that popular as he may be, the Tel Aviv mayor is “at most a municipal authority who does not speak for the party and cannot speak on national policy issues.”

Lahat remained confident that there would be no reprisals because Likud needs him.

A WITHDRAWAL FROM THE GOLAN

On Monday, he told Ma’ariv that he favors not only a Palestinian state but Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan Heights, in the framework of a peace treaty with Syria.

Such statements are rank heresy to Likud and an embarrassment to its leadership.

But beneath the embarrassment lie searching questions.

Has Lahat proven more adept at gauging the popular mood, at least among the middle class, than Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Defense Minister Moshe Arens, with their sonorous rhetoric?

Is the intifada, now spilling over into Israel proper, causing mainstream Israelis — the kind who have swung to Likud in recent elections — to reconsider retaining Israel’s grip on the administered territories?

On the other hand, are those middle classes who form the backbone of the population of Tel Aviv and the coastal plane representative of a majority of the nation?

Israeli and foreign observers have noted during the three years of the intifada an almost unnatural propensity of Tel Aviv residents to pretend the uprising is not happening — or is happening thousands of miles away.

Even those who do their reserve duty and face the intifada first-hand seem to have a remarkable facility for putting it out of their minds as soon as they doff their uniforms.

Politicians are asking whether the flip side of this tendency to repress emotionally is a new political flexibility, accurately articulated by Lahat.

At Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, the prime minister spoke of the century-long war between Jews and Arabs in this land. He called for cool resolve in the face of the current terror.

But for Lahat, “the Palestinians are a fact of life. Arafat is their leader, even if I don’t like him.

“Only if they turn us down, despite our offer to negotiate over a separate state, would I then say: ‘Let us settle 200,000 Jews in Judea and Samaria.’ But then we will know that we have genuinely exhausted every possibility of peace,” the mayor said.

The Palestinians, he added, are “the Jews of the Arab world. The Arabs themselves don’t support their demand for a state. If we approach them with sagacity and help them, together we will be able to live in this region as in paradise.”

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