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News Analysis: Rabin Dissociates Israel from Attack, Hoping to Bring Ploback to the Table

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“Congratulations, Baruch Goldstein, in whatever part of hell you are. You’ve achieved your purpose.”

Thus, writing on the front page of Israel’s largest circulation newspaper, did Yediot Aharonot columnist Nahum Barnea respond Monday to the bitter news that as a result of Friday’s massacre at Hebron the delegations of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan had announced the suspension of the bilateral negotiations in Washington.

A similar sentiment was expressed later that same day, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, speaking from the Knesset podium, sought to dissociate not only himself and his government, but the entire Jewish people from the murderous act of the Kiryat Arba doctor.

Dr. Baruch Goldstein had wanted to kill not only defenseless, innocent Arabs at prayer, Rabin said, but also all chances for peace.

Rabin – with one eye on the seething Arab protests sweeping the country, and the other on Israel’s battered image in the court of world opinion – declared that Goldstein and his ilk were “just a weed” in the furrow of the state and the nation.

He reiterated his and his government’s commitment to the peace process and to what had already been agreed upon between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization during their negotiations.

Rabin urged the Arab side to respond to the terrible outrage by pressing forward with the work of peacemaking.

In briefings with reporters, however, the prime minister and his key aides were making it clear that they are not prepared to offer further concessions to the PLO – beyond those announced by the Cabinet on Sunday – in order to induce a resumption of the talks.

They maintained that if this meant a lengthy hiatus in the talks, then so be it.

They argued that the steps taken by the Cabinet were designed to show sincerity and good will, and ought to be accepted by the PLO as such, if not immediately, then within a relatively short time.

The Cabinet agreed on Sunday to launch an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the killings and to attempt to limit the activities of Jewish extremists in the territories.

Some officials in Jerusalem were looking to the Clinton administration to apply its own persuasive efforts to draw PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and his key aides back to the negotiating table.

Clinton’s initial reaction to the massacre – inviting Israel and the PLO to transfer their negotiations to Washington at once – was greeted here as the strongest-yet show of American commitment to the self-rule accord.

But in subsequent days the American intervention appeared to lessen, and by midweek the talk was of a possible tour of the region by a U.S. State Department team sometime in late March, following Rabin’s visit to Washington, scheduled for the middle of the month.

The peace talks themselves, according to this scenario, might get under way again in April.

The problem, of course, with this sort of time frame is that the long gaps virtually invite further deterioration – both on the ground and on the diplomatic plane.

The Hebron killings are thought likely to draw in their wake a wave of Palestinian terror attempts, which in turn will worsen the atmosphere in Israel.

It is in part to fill in the gaps about what happened in Hebron on Friday that the Israeli Cabinet decided over the weekend to create a commission of inquiry.

The commission will begin its work soon – perhaps next week – and will be led by the president of the Supreme Court, Justice Meir Shamgar. It will investigate the circumstances that enabled the killer to enter the mosque and commit the mass murders.

In behind-the-scenes diplomacy that has gone on unremittingly since the attack, the PLO has formulated several demands, including: An international presence to protect the Palestinian populace in the territories; A curb on Kiryat Arba residents’ entry rights to Hebron; The dismantlement of some settlements in Gaza; The disarming of all settlers; An increase in the number of Palestinian policemen in Gaza and Jericho once the accord goes into effect; Immediate negotiations about Israeli settlements rather than a postponement of the issue for a later stage of the talks.

Observers say Arafat is under increasing pressure from his own supporters within the PLO to maintain a hard line, even at the risk of sacrificing all that has been achieved so far.

Among Israeli officials, the hope is that the PLO chairman can show – yet again – the kind of dexterity and staying power that have enabled him to climb out of so many tight corners in the past.

Ultimately, many observers here are saying, the Hebron tragedy presents a critical test of the leadership abilities and commitment to peace of both Arafat and Rabin.

As several Israeli Cabinet ministers noted in the immediate, shocked aftermath of the killings, just about the only thing that can counterbalance its deleterious impact would be a speedy conclusion and implementation of the Gaza- Jericho accord.

Despite the present climate, that is still possible – if Rabin and Arafat both will it.

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