The mounting terror attacks against Israelis launched by Islamic militants are steadily croding public confidence in the Palestinian self-rule accord signed last year in Washington.
As a result, the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, mindful of recent polls showing the Labor Party running neck-and-neck with the Likud opposition, is beginning to question whether it might be necessary to change the accord.
On Sunday, the Cabinet met for one of two special sessions this week to hear assessments of the current state of Palestinian self-rule from army and intelligence officials.
The Cabinet also debated what course the government should adopt in the next phase of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The negotiations, which resumed this week in Cairo, focused for the first time on the next step in the implementation of Palestinian autonomy. The next phase includes withdrawal of Israeli army troops from the West Bank, which under the terms of the self-rule agreement must take place before Palestinian elections are held.
Given the recent spate of terrorist attacks, there is a growing conviction among members of the Rabin government that it will be impossible to pull Israeli troops out of the West Bank and at the same time ensure the security of the Jewish settlements located there.
Uri Dromi, the head of Israel’s Government Press Office, summed up the issue by saying this week, “Holding elections is important, but the safety of Israelis is just as important and may be has an overriding force.”
At Sunday’s Cabinet session, security officials reportedly said the Islamic militants were gaining ground over Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority and that the militants were responsible for the deaths of 32 Israelis since October.
With such statistics, little wonder that last year’s euphoria over the Israel- PLO agreement negotiated in Oslo is beginning to ring hollow.
“It is Oslo isn’t working. The question is what do you conclude from that fact?” said Dore Gold, an analyst with Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Research.
“The whole idea of Gaza-Jericho was to create a test to see whether the concept of empowering the PLO made sense,” Gold said, referring to the first stage of the selfrule accord giving the PLO control over the Gaza Strip and West Bank Jericho enclave.
The Cabinet is now divided, he said, with some ministers “unwilling to admit the concept of empowering the PLO failed.”
Gold compared the current process with the Palestinians to “driving a car with a hole in the gas tank,” a situation certain to bring things sooner or later to a grinding halt.
He said the next step is redeployment and putting Arafat’s security apparatus in the West Bank. “But if it didn’t work in Gaza, putting it (where Israelis) are more vulnerable is insane.”
He said that the Rabin government, which has “pinned its fate” to the Palestinian peace process, can hardly admit that it has failed.
Other analysts agree.
“The Israeli government has tried for a long time to put as good a face as possible on Palestinian compliance” with the agreement, but “at this point it’s no longer possible,” said Dan Polisar, director of Peace Watch, a group monitoring both Israeli and Palestinian compliance with the agreement.
“Everyone knows terrorism is up,” said Polisar, who noted the Palestinians have not extradited any suspects accused of carrying out terrorist attacks against Israelis, despite six specific requests by Israel.
Because of these security concerns, Polisar believes Israel can claim a right to call for modifications in the self-rule accord.
Israel can argue that the terms of the agreement should be altered “because the Palestinians aren’t fulfilling” their part of the bargain, he said.
Arafat’s ability to deliver on security was a major focus of Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, where several Israeli military and security experts gave Arafat bad marks, saying he has failed to disarm his opposition and to ensure security and stability in the Gaza Strip.
The head of intelligence, Maj. Gen. Uri Saguy, warned of a “Lebanonization” in Gaza – a reference to the political and economic chaos in the area, highlighted by the proliferation of armed militias representing the feuding Arafat loyalists and the Islamic militants.
Maj. Gen. Danny Rothschild, who announced suddenly on Monday that he was resigning as coordinator of the territories, reportedly said at the Cabinet meeting that the West Bank – which has some 12,000 Jewish settlers living among 1 million Palestinians – presents an even more complex security situation than Gaza, home a some 4,000 settlers.
Rothschild, who also resigned as Israel’s chief negotiator in talks with the Palestinians, told Israel Television Monday night that he had informed Rabin of his plans to resign from the Israel Defense Force two months ago.
He said that he was not resigning out of protest or disagreement with the government and that he still supported the peace process.
The ministers were reportedly also told that the Israeli military could not ensure the protection of West Bank settlers if its redeploys and the settlements remain in their current locations.
Rabin later sought to downplay the alarms sounded in Sunday’s briefings, saying that much of the terminology employed – such as “Lebanonization” – had been exaggerated.
He also denied claims by Arafat that groundwork is being laid to suspend negotiations with the Palestinians.
“I’m committed to the continuation of negotiations,” he said.
But at the same time, he conceded the difficulties that lie ahead.
“No doubt, we’ll have to keep in mind the lessons we have learned so far” in Gaza, he said.
But several Cabinet ministers continued to go public with their own opinions, exposing the differences among them and the possibility that Israel will seek modifications in the accord.
Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin caused a brouhaha last week when he suggested skipping the interim period and moving ahead final-status negotiations, which at this point are not scheduled to begin until 1996.
Both Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres immediately shot down the idea, saying that skipping the interim stage would trigger a crisis between Israelis and Palestinians.
Meanwhile, Economics Minister Shimon Shetreet suggested after the Cabinet meeting that overall security in the West Bank should remain in Israeli hands and no settlements should be moved.
Environment Minister Yossi Sarid, an ardent dove, also appeared to back away from a full deployment of Israeli troops, suggesting it be applied only to some West Bank areas.
Sarid and others, including Absorption Minister Yair Tsaban and Minister of Agriculture Yakov Tsur, have also called for the evacuation of some settlements, in effect seeking to speed up the terms of the self-rule agreement.
Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Ori Orr also has thrown his weight behind a call for a change in the agreement. He wants Israeli troops to stay in Palestinian centers throughout the interim period of autonomy.
He also called for Israel to move isolated West Bank settlements to existing blocs, adding that the army could withdraw temporarily until the elections are held, but that “the situation is not ripe” for them to redeploy entirely.
The Palestinian Authority, for its part, has rejected the prospect of renegotiating the agreement and has demanded that Israel withdraw its troops as planned.
With the two sides so far apart, a Foreign Ministry source said a compromise was likely and necessary.
“Without a change in both Palestinian and Israeli positions, it will be very difficult, maybe even impossible to reach an agreement,” he said.