News Analysis: Controversy over Efrat Expansion Raises New Questions About Self-rule

The recent storm over the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank is threatening both the peace process and the Israeli government’s stability.

The dispute over settlement construction is also deepening doubts about the wisdom of the original Israeli-Palestinian self-rule accord.

That agreement prescribes an “interim agreement” on Palestinian autonomy for a period of five years, while purporting to leave such thorny issues as the settlements to later negotiations on the “permanent status” of the territories.

The dramatic events on a hill between Efrat – one of several Jewish settlements in the area known as Gush Etzion – and a neighboring Arab village of Al-Khader, seemed to show that settlements cannot be postponed.

They are living – and growing – entities that force themselves onto the political agenda.

At the heart of the dispute were plans for Efrat to build 500 new housing units on a plot of land, Givat Hatamar, near Bethlehem, that residents of Al-Khader contend belong to them.

It is a dispute that the Palestinians warned could damage the peace process.

When the Cabinet decided on Monday to suspend construction at the disputed site in the interest of the peace process, both the settlers and the Palestinians protested.

The Cabinet instead offered the settlers an alternative site, Givat Hazayit, closer to Efrat.

A ministerial committee, chaired by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was set up to oversee the new project and to closely monitor all subsequent proposals for settlement expansion projects in the territories.

In explaining the Cabinet decision, Rabin said that it was still the government’s policy to allow private construction at existing settlements. But he also said he would prevent construction of new settlements, in adherence with the settlement freeze he put effect upon taking office in 1992.

Through they initially rejected the Cabinet decision, leaders of the Efrat community met with government officials on Tuesday to discuss the alternate proposal, which involves the building of 268 housing units on Givat Hazayit.

Knesset Member Hanan Porat of the National Religious Party, who heads the private association which contracted the building project, said Tuesday that he plans to appeal the government ban to the High Court of Justice.

At the same time, he said, construction would go on at Givat Hazayit.

Ministers from the left-wing Meretz bloc voted against the Cabinet decision, saying that any further settlement construction violates the spirit of the Israeli-Palestinian accord.

Opposition parties also protested the decision, accusing Rabin of bowing to pressure from Arafat.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu accused Rabin of “shamefully surrendering to Palestinian terrorism.” And Tsomet Knesset member Moshe Peled also attacked the government, calling Monday’s Cabinet decision “the end of Zionism.”

Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority officials also rejected the Cabinet decision. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres telephoned Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat on Monday night to inform him to the government’s decision.

But one prominent Palestinian, Saeb Erekat, said that the Israeli government was only transferring construction from one hilltop to another.

“Rabin cannot solve the problem by diverting bulldozers from one hilltop to another,” he said. “Negotiations will become meaningless, because negotiations, after all, are about land.”

The issue was expected to be raised this week at ongoing Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, which resumed in Cairo on Tuesday.

The standoff in Efrat, meanwhile, dovetails with one of the major issues currently being negotiated between Israel and the Palestinian: a redeployment of Israeli troops in the West Bank.

Under the terms of the self-rule accord signed in September 1993 by Israel and the PLO, Israeli troops are to withdraw prior to the holding of Palestinian elections.

But Israeli officials, concerned about the security of the settlers left in the territories, are reluctant to launch a withdrawal.

According to recent reports, top policymakers are contemplating an initial redeployment from some West Bank towns, including Bethlehem and Jenin.

The Etzion settlers, considered relative moderates, are up in arms – almost literally.

Their leader, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, formerly of New York, said last week they will set up their own armed militia to patrol the area if the army leaves Bethlehem.

Because the settlement question has burst through attempts to keep it in abeyance during the interim period, the whole rationale of the interim agreement has inevitably taken a beating.

Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin is not the only member of the governing coalition to have suggested in recent weeks that Rabin and Arafat set aside their efforts to create an interim arrangement and instead immediately begin the permanent status talks.

He is, though, the only one to have dared to say so publicly, a move for which he incurred the prime minister’s wrath.

But the recent events at Efrat, and Rabin’s obvious political distress, have reinforced such heretical thinking in the government camp.

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