Ominous talk of a “rift in the nation” and even “civil war” is becoming commonplace as political tensions reach a new high here.
The escalating tensions were sparked by the preliminary agreement signed last week by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat for extending Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank.
The agreement was approved this week by both the Israeli Cabinet and the PLO Executive Committee – though not without opposition in both bodies.
In addition, there are reported tensions between the political and military establishments over some of the details of the agreement, which is known as the interim agreement on self-rule.
Meanwhile, across the scrub-covered hillsides of the West Bank, Jewish settlers are continuing to create symbolic settlements to demonstrate their dogged opposition to any ceding of the land to the Palestinians.
In at least one case this week, the confrontations turned deadly, when settlers opened fire on a group of Palestinian protesters.
Four settlers were arrested in connection with the shooting near the Jewish settlement of Beit El.
The deepening controversy surrounding the ongoing negotiations with the Palestinians is also threatening Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s parliamentary majority.
Rabin may have thought that he would have some respite from parliamentary squabbles when the Knesset went on summer recess earlier this month.
But the relief was temporary, because the opposition, led by the Likud Party, called the Knesset into special session Tuesday to consider a series of motions attacking the Peres-Arafat accord.
At a stormy session, Rabin rejected opposition demands that he submit last week’s Israeli-PLO agreement for Knesset approval.
Rabin is insisting that because the accord has not yet been finalized, he does not need to submit it for Knesset approval at this point.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resumed their discussions in Eilat this week and, according to Israeli officials, a final agreement will be hammered out within three weeks.
An official signing ceremony is slated to take place in Washington on or about Sept. 6.
Rabin pledged to seek the legislators’ stamp of approval – a move required by custom though not by Israeli law – once the negotiations are concluded and the agreement complete.
With two Knesset members belonging to Rabin’s own Labor Party – Avigdor Kahalani and Emanuel Zismann – pledging not to support the government on the accord, Rabin’s majority will depend on the tiny Yi’ud Party, and/or on the tacit cooperation of the fervently religious Shas Party.
Two of Yi’ud’s three members are expected to back the government.
But Rabin’s list of troubles involves more than just the settlers, the parliamentary opposition and defections from within his own party.
His Cabinet itself showed some erosion at its weekly meeting Sunday. Equally significant were leaked reports of criticism from within the army.
Energy Minister Gonen Segev opposed the accord outright. Two other Cabinet members – recently appointed Interior Minister Ehud Barak and Religious Affairs Minister Shimon Shetreet – abstained.
Segev later said that he feared that the new agreement would lead to an Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders.
Barak, who retired in January as Israel Defense Force chief of staff, reportedly spoke for his former comrades in the IDF high command in addressing some security considerations.
Barak warned his new Cabinet colleagues that the terms of evolving interim agreement with the Palestinians could harm Israel’s ability to negotiate freely when the so-called “permanent status” negotiations with the Palestinians are held.
The Peres-Arafat agreement calls, in part, for an IDF redeployment in the West Bank in three stages by July 1997. But the permanent status talks are scheduled to begin in May 1996 – a situation, Barak warned, that could weaken Israel’s bargaining position in those future crucial negotiations.
Rabin was reportedly irked by Barak’s position at the Cabinet session. Indeed, Rabin said all ministers opposing the evolving accord could submit their resignations.
But the personal ties between Rabin and Barak are close, and observers predict that they will not be frayed by this first friction between them.
On Monday, Rabin sent Barak to defend the government’s position before the Chief Rabbinate Council, which is under pressure from the settlers to issue a rabbinic edict against the accord with the Palestinians.
Rabin, meanwhile, also faced criticism from top-level officers in the IDF.
Maj. Gen. Ilan Biran, commander of the IDF’s central command – which includes the West Bank – was reported over the weekend to be harboring serious doubts about his unites’ ability to provide the requisite protection for Jewish settlers under the terms of the evolving agreement.
Rabin, in turn, countered that the ultimate responsibility for the accord rested with elected civilian officials. The army, he added, was required to provide the best solutions available within the terms of reference set by the government.
As Rabin squares off against opponents from all sides, the Israeli right-wing is hardly unified.
On Monday, opposition parties in the Knesset met with leaders of Gush Emunim, the Third Way, Professors for Political Strength and other conservative extraparlimentary groups to discuss tactics to opposed the Peres-Arafat accord.
But there have been severe rifts within the Israeli right after the hard-line settler group Zo Artzeinu, or “This is Our Land,” launched a countrywide road- blocking protest last week that stranded evening rush-hour drivers for up to two hours.
Likud Knesset member Benjamin Begin condemned the action outright, while other Likud parliamentarians voiced their own reservations.
Even the Yesha Council, which represents settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, dissociated itself from the roadblocks – even though it continues to collaborate with Zo Artzeinu in the ongoing hillside demonstrations throughout the West Bank.
Some of the participants at the Monday meeting of the opposition proposed launching a “siege” of the Knesset and the government complex in Jerusalem – a move designed to paralyze the Rabin government.
But this idea was met by strong opposition.
Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu vigorously discouraged such tactics, insisting that the opposition’s fight against the government’s peace policy must be conducted wholly within the law.
At Tuesday’s Knesset session, the Likud leader called for a national referendum on the agreement, asserting that Rabin has reneged on all his campaign promises and that he was not acting in accordance with the platform on which he had been elected.
Netanyahu put forward his own proposal, which would grant Palestinians “administrative independence” in the West Bank, but leave ultimate authority over the land, water and security in the hands of Israel.
Peres responded that the Rabin government’s basic stance in the negotiations with the Palestinians had been established by a Likud government in the Camp David Accords that led up to signing of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace accord.
Peres said the Camp David Accords first set down the idea of an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian population centers and the establishment of a Palestinian police force – ideas Peres described as having the Likud’s own “patent.’