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Behind the Headlines: Ordinary Israelis Express Ambivalence About Proposed Peace Accord with PLO

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Nothing, perhaps, is more unsettling than the unknown. In the week since the Israeli Cabinet approved the broad outlines of an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, residents here have found themselves confronted with more questions than answers.

As they ponder the rapidly changing political climate in their own backyard, ordinary citizens wonder whether the proposed agreement will be a first step toward peace or a threat to Israel’s security.

Conversations with ordinary citizens reveal a feeling of expectation — that something important is just around the corner. But there is also a sense of frustration that the government has not provided them with much information.

“The government isn’t releasing enough details about how the plan will affect Israelis, and it’s making me very nervous,” says Rhoda Golan, a childbirth educator.

“I have very mixed feelings. If we could trust the proposal it would be great, but I don’t think we can trust it. I don’t believe that the Palestinians will be content with Jericho and Gaza. What will happen with Jerusalem? The truth is, I’m completely confused by the entire business,” said Golan.

What Golan calls “the entire business” is a proposed Israeli-Palestinian agreement that was drafted after months of secret high-level meetings between top Israeli and Palestine Liberation Organization officials.

The proposed declaration of principles calls for Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and Jericho as a first step toward a gradual extension of Palestinian authority in the territories.

‘TOO MANY UNANSWERED QUESTIONS’

Richard Kovler, a jewelry wholesaler in his mid-30s, said of the proposed agreement, “There are still too many unanswered questions. Who will have jurisdiction over certain areas if there is an accident or terrorist attack?

“What will happen to the Israelis living in Gaza and near Jericho? Without more information, it’s impossible to make an informed opinion,” said Kovler.

A professed right-winger, Kovler is nonetheless willing to give up Gaza.

“I’ve done reserve duty in Gaza and it’s extremely difficult to keep a lid on the problems there. Honestly, Israel may be better off without it,” he said.

But he is adamant about retaining control of Jericho. “Jericho is so close to Jerusalem, in the center of the country. Giving it up will compromise our security,” he said.

Nor is he happy with the prospect of doing business with the PLO. “Arafat is a murderer and a terrorist, and I don’t want the government to negotiate with him,” said Kovler.

“Even more important, Arafat doesn’t have enough power to keep a rein on the more radical Palestinians. I foresee a civil war inside the Palestinian camp. Where will that leave us?”

Extremist forces are also a concern for a Palestinian construction worker named Ahmed, who asked that his last name not be used.

“Peace is important for both the Palestinians and the Israelis, but there are people in both camps who want to see the peace talks fail. I’m from a town near Ramallah, and I can feel the tension building. I’m afraid I don’t foresee peace any time soon,” he said.

Like so many others here, Yonatan, an 18-year-old soldier serving in the Gaza Strip town of Khan Yunis, has mixed feelings about the plan.

“I think things will get worse if we pull out,” he said. “There will be more infighting among various Palestinian factions.”

But he does see an immediate benefit to the proposed pact: “I’d be thrilled if I didn’t have to serve in Gaza. If the plan can get Israeli soldiers out of Gaza, it might be worth the gamble.”

Miriam Laufer, who works in early-childhood education in Jerusalem, said she is “cautiously optimistic” about the peace process. “I think it’s a step in the right direction, and I hope the Gaza-Jericho plan will be implemented soon.”

But she admitted to some reservations. “Even liberals like myself would like to learn more about the plan. For example, how will it affect Israelis wanting to travel through Jericho? Will we still have access to the places we visit now?”

Despite the uncertainty, Laufer supports the proposal. “It won’t be easy,” she said, “but I think the step needs to be taken.”

During the past week, both the left- and right-wing elements of the political spectrum have mobilized their forces through demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns.

Teen-agers stand at street corners, handing out bumper stickers ranging from “Peace Now” to “We’re Not Leaving Gaza” and “Rabin Doesn’t Have a Mandate.”

According to a poll published in the Hebrew daily Yediot Achronot, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin does have a mandate, albeit a small one.

Mina Tzemach, the country’s leading pollster, asked Jewish adults whether they are for or against the Jericho-Gaza peace proposal.

The response: 53 percent supported the plan while 45 percent opposed it. The remaining 2 percent had no opinion.

The poll also revealed that support for the plan cuts across political party lines. For example, 29 percent of the respondents who voted for Rabin’s Labor Party opposed the plan, while 30 percent of Likud supporters favored it.

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