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Rabin Triggers Heated Debate by Remark over Gaza Autonomy

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Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has triggered a heated political debate this week following what appeared to be a casual remark about the possibility of implementing a Palestinian autonomy plan in the Gaza Strip before doing so in the West Bank.

Rabin’s remark, made at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, made it clear, though, that autonomy would be implemented only in the context of a negotiated settlement reached in the Middle East peace talks.

In that respect, Rabin’s “Gaza first” remark differs from the “Gaza first” option supported by some other Israeli leaders, who have called upon Israel to pull out of the Gaza Strip unilaterally and implement autonomy there.

But even Rabin’s less radical proposal drew both criticism and support.

Likud Knesset Member Benny Begin strongly opposed the idea and said the majority of his party supported his view. He accused Rabin of allowing Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasir Arafat, who recently endorsed such a plan, to set the agenda for the peace process.

The idea was also rejected by two members of the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks, Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi. Ashrawi charged Rabin with trying to drive a wedge between the Palestinians in the territories.

The head of the Palestinian negotiating team, Haidar Abdel-Shafi, however, said he had no objection to such a strategy. Shafi is a physician from the Gaza Strip.

On the other side of the argument, the Likud’s Moshe Katsav and Labor’s Eli Dayan — both leaders of their respective party’s Knesset factions — called Rabin’s suggestion a good idea.

Dayan said he believed that once the institutions of Palestinian self-rule were set up in Gaza, negotiations could begin immediately on the permanent status of the territories, without waiting for three years to elapse as stipulated under the Camp David agreement.

Rabin provoked the debate over Gaza on Sunday when he said he “saw nothing to prevent” applying an interim autonomy “agreement in principle” reached within the negotiating framework in Washington to the Gaza Strip first.

Rabin has previously expressed his opposition to a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, despite its popularity with many Israelis.

Rabin has said that any territorial concessions must be made within the framework of agreements.

He has also argued that a unilateral withdrawal would set a bad precedent by giving Palestinians the impression that Israel will concede territory under the pressure of violence and terrorism.

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