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News Analysis:israelis’ Unflagging Support for PLO Accord Seems in Doubt

A spate of anti-Arab violence by Jewish settlers in the administered territories this week was only the most extreme manifestation of what the government here fears is a drift in Israeli public opinion away from support for the Israeli-Palestinian accord on self-rule.

The violence was touched off by the killing last Friday of Chaim Mizrachi, a resident of the West Bank settlement of Beit El, who apparently was kidnapped and murdered by Islamic fundamentalists when he went to buy eggs at a Palestinian chicken farm.

Enraged settlers went on a rampage, blocking roads with burning tires, stoning Arab cars, roughing up Arab drivers, and setting agricultural fields and Arab schools on fire.

The violence, which began Saturday night and continued for a few days, had mostly tapered off by midweek. But there was lingering concern about what some in the media were calling the start of a “Jewish intifada.”

While the public recoiled from such excesses, which were condemned in the strongest terms by even right-wing politicians, it seemed nevertheless that, this time, the settlers had succeeded in attracting the sympathies of the Israeli public.

Their rowdy demonstrations in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 13 signing of the accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization had left the vast bulk of the Israeli public demonstrably cold.

But the brutal death of Mizrachi, who was ambushed while buying eggs from a Palestinian farmer, brought home to people the dangers that Israelis living in the territories will still face — perhaps in even greater measure — once Israel begins withdrawing its forces from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho on Dec. 13, as called for in the accord.

The government’s problems were probably exacerbated by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin himself.

In a typically sharp Rabinesque comment Saturday night, the prime minister appeared to lump together the Hamas terrorists — three of whom butchered Mizrachi — and the Jewish settlers as enemies of the peace process.

But by the same token, Rabin’s much-criticized remark served to focus the public debate.

It is true that in subsequent explanatory statements, Rabin carefully added the Hebrew word “I’havdil” — “to make a distinction.” But he nonetheless retained the basic logic of his analogy.

The Hamas terrorists are trying to destroy Israel’s accord with the PLO, he told reporters Tuesday as he went to vote in the municipal elections being held throughout the country.

UPS AND DOWNS TO BE EXPECTED

Rabin clearly proposes to maintain this public policy line to defend his agreement with the PLO and to shore up domestic support for it.

To this end, Rabin has repeatedly stressed that the PLO has repeatedly stressed that the PLO has abided strictly by its commitment to forswear terrorism and that it is not involved in the current crop of attacks and attempted attacks within Israel proper, the territories or in southern Lebanon.

Rabin has also repeatedly cautioned the public to expect ups and downs in the ongoing talks with the PLO, which entered their fourth round this week in the Sinai border town of Taba.

One such “down” took place Tuesday, when the Palestinians, rejecting Israeli plans for the withdrawal from Gaza, suspended the Taba talks.

In the short term, with the implementation of the self-rule accord the first order of business, Rabin and his government seem well-set to weather any settler backlash.

This is because the widespread desire to be rid of Gaza has become a national yearning. And the continuation of terrorist incidents originating from there only serves to reinforce that yearning.

But some government officials view the longer-term prospects with trepidation.

They point out that by April, when Israeli forces are scheduled to complete their withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho, the second phase of Palestinian “early empowerment” will begin. And this phase is certain to be more delicate and complex.

During this phase, the Palestinians in the rest of the territories will begin to exercise elements of the self-rule accord, including the ability to participate in elections throughout the territories for a Palestinian council.

But the settlers, meanwhile, will be trying to continue with their daily lives in the face of Arab rejectionists, who will still be trying, even at that late stage, to torpedo the peace process.

It is a scenario fraught with tension and danger, which, to judge by the events of the past few days, could well explode in the faces of the peacemakers on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides.

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