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News Analysis: Israel Warns PLO on Violating Accord but Remains Optimistic on Autonomy

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The loudest, clearest warning was delivered, in solemn tones and with the full weight of the government’s authority, by the minister of police, Moshe Shahal.

If the Palestine Liberation Organization were to create a “material breach” of its agreement with Israel, that breach “would not remain unilateral,” Shahal told the Knesset on Monday. “The situation would return to what it was before.”

The warning, with its implied threat of a complete curtailment of any further negotiations with the PLO, came after a tape-recording was released last week of a speech delivered by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in a mosque in Johannesburg on May 11.

In that speech, Arafat called on his audience of devoted Muslims to continue the “jihad” for Jerusalem.

Subsequently, the PLO leader and his aides sought to undo the damage by asserting that “jihad” had been used in the “spiritual, not warlike” sense, although the Arabic word is generally rendered in English as “holy war.”

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said the explanation was unconvincing. But, grudgingly, he accepted it.

Hardly was that episode over when another, even more damaging segment of the same tape was released in Jerusalem on Sunday.

In that portion of the taped Johannesburg speech, Arafat compared his agreement with Israel to the agreement concluded by the Prophet Mohammad with the Koreish tribe in the year 628.

That agreement was abrogated by Mohammad two years after it was signed.

Again Arafat’s propaganda machine swung into action, seeking to persuade a perplexed and by-now-furious Israeli public that Mohammad had reneged only because the Koreish reneged first.

This theological-cum-historical discussion might have been conducted with more patience, and perhaps more credence, on the Israeli side had it not flared up just two days after the killing, by Islamic Jihad terrorists, of two Israeli soldiers manning a checkpoint in the Gaza Strip.

It was precisely this sort of tragedy that the withdrawal from Gaza was supposed to prevent. Indeed, that was the logic that had led the large majority of the Israeli public to support the pullout in the first place.

ATTACK HIGHLIGHTED ISRAELI FEARS

It was also precisely this sort of tragedy that Israelis feared most with regard to the nascent Palestinian autonomy that has begun to take shape in Gaza and Jericho this month.

Making matters worse, Palestinian police at a Gaza checkpoint pumped bullets into the tires of an Israeli truck on Monday. No one was hurt; but again, the extreme insecurity of an ostensibly security-oriented agreement seemed to have been demonstrated.

On the settler-Palestinian front, meanwhile, there have been charges and counter-charges regarding alleged provocations at the ancient synagogue in Jericho. And there are persistent reports of Gazan youths hurling verbal abuse across the barbed-wire fences that surround the Jewish settlements in the Strip.

During his Knesset speech on Monday, Shahal, a lawyer, used the carefully veiled, yet precise, language of lawyers.

But his statement — coordinated with the prime minister and delivered in the course of a debate over a no-confidence motion in the Knesset — represented Israel’s considered reaction to the series of disturbing events that have occurred during this initial, delicate period in the implementation of the Palestinian self-rule accord.

The PLO, for its part, is purporting to speak in the same considered tone. There were clear signs by midweek that the PLO leadership in Tunis was troubled by, and finally responding to, the wave of anger and bitterness that has swept Israel in the wake of the recent setbacks.

But in the meantime, Rabin and his ministers are in a bind.

Until now, when embarrassed by bursts of old-style, hostile rhetoric from the PLO side, they have frequently replied that the “real test” will come with the actual implementation of the accord. But now the “real test” has begun, and it has gotten off to a not-altogether encouraging start.

The PLO police plainly have not yet taken a proper grip on Gaza and Jericho, the two areas now under their control. One of those areas, Gaza, is teeming with more than three-quarters of a million people and has acute social and economic problems.

CASH IS SCARCE

The PLO civilian administration has likewise not yet reached its full complement. Nor has Arafat completed his appointments to the Palestinian Authority, the 24-member governing council.

Ready cash, moreover, is scarce. Nabil Sha’ath, the PLO’s top negotiator during the Cairo negotiations leading up to the implementation accord, crossed into Gaza last weekend with a much needed $5 million shot-in-the arm for the nascent Palestinian police force.

But that is only “first aid” when compared to the needs of the dawning Palestinian autonomy.

Promises and pledges of funding from abroad have yet to materialize. And the PLO, moreover, has yet to win the confidence of the prospective donors that it has an efficient and non-corrupt administrative machine in place to disburse the promised assistance.

And yet senior Israeli officials, in the military and in intelligence, stress in their top-level reports and assessments that all is not black, nor even gray.

The ranking PLO police officers, many of them former commanders of the Palestine Liberation Army, have impressed their Israeli counter-parts with their businesslike approach and professionalism, and with their evident commitment to make the agreement succeed.

These senior Israeli officials are urging the political echelon to see the full picture and to give the fledgling Palestinian government a grace period in which to prove itself.

It was for that reason, according to informed insiders, that the Israeli government’s reaction to the fatal shooting of the two soldiers last Friday was relatively low-key.

By midweek, moreover, strong signals were arriving from the PLO’s Tunis headquarters to the effect that Arafat and his key aides will take steps to allay Israeli concerns.

As part of these steps, the PLO leader will complete his appointments to the Palestinian Authority this week. And, according to Arafat’s Israeli Arab adviser, Dr. Ahmed Tibi, the Palestine National Council will “soon” be convened to abrogate the provisions of the Palestine National Covenant that reject Israel’s right to existence.

A more cynical evaluation of the efforts by Israel and the PLO to put things back on track would doubtless point to an abiding political fact:

Rabin, Peres and Arafat are three men in the same boat. They either float or sink together.

Hence the resilient determination of all three of them to make the agreement work.

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