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Behind the Headlines: Most Israelis Now Backing Shamir but Unsure Where Talks Will Lead

A national consensus of sorts has developed in Israel over the last week in support of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, whose popularity is riding higher than ever since he led the Israeli delegation at the opening round of the Middle East peace conference in Madrid.

Although Israelis on the left and the right have different reasons for backing the hard-line premier, there is little question that he now enjoys most of the population’s support.

Although no poll has been taken for two weeks, Shamir would likely emerge with a 70 to 80 percent public approval rating, according to Professor Avraham Diskin, head of the Hebrew University’s political science department and a professional pollster.

It would be a measure of personal regard, Diskin pointed out, considering that the coalition government Shamir heads controls barely more than 50 percent of the Knesset.

According to political analysts, Shamir’s popularity arises from the image in the eyes of his beholders.

The Israeli left praises him for agreeing to direct negotiations with Palestinian leaders, something they have been urging for years. But if they assume Shamir suddenly has turned dovish, it is wishful thinking, analysts say.

Those on the left ignore the fact that Shamir agreed to talks only if the Palestinians were blended into a Jordanian delegation and only if he could control to a great extent their choice of representatives.

The Israeli right, on the other hand, is delighted that Shamir remains unmovable on the issues of land for peace and a freeze of Jewish settlement-building in the administered territories.

“The moderate right supports him because he has not agreed to anything,” said one political analyst. “On the left, it is not so much support as a sigh of relief that he didn’t do anything foolish over there” in Madrid.

MEMORIES OF ‘WHAT IT WAS LIKE’

Many Israelis now feel there is no option but to talk to the Palestinians and to consider giving up at least part of the strategic Golan Heights, which probably is the main condition for any sort of peace with Syria.

“The question is, would they be satisfied with that?” Anat Levy, a 27-year-old graphic artist, wondered when questioned on the street.

“I know it’s easy to talk about giving up the Golan Heights, but I don’t really know what it was like to live here before we had them,” the young woman said, smiling apologetically.

“I do know,” interrupted an older man who would not give his name or age. “I remember what it was like doing miluim (army reserve duty) a few kilometers east of Netanya in 1965.

“I remember how the Syrians every day shelled kibbutzim north of the Golan,” he said.

Nevertheless, this man, who once was a target of Syrian shells lobbed from the Golan Heights, was a strong supporter of the peace process.

“It is obvious that we can’t continue this way,” he said. “Something has to be done, and we have to reach agreements with our neighbors.

“But we have to be careful, very careful,” he added.

Other citizens of Tel Aviv, questioned Monday as the first of the winter rains lashed the city, expressed similar views.

“I certainly want Israel out of the West Bank, but not from Jerusalem,” said Lea Tomkin, a literature teacher in her early 50s.

“But while I don’t want Israel to waste more time and money in the territories, I still can’t decide how I feel about the possibility of an independent Palestinian state next door,” she said.

Tomkin’s ambiguous feelings seemed representative of how many Israelis are thinking. On one hand, they want a settlement with the Palestinians; on the other, they ask: “Can we trust them? Or are they going to want Haifa, Tel Aviv and Ashkelon next?”

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