News Analysis: with Nary a Peep from Israelis, Withdrawals Ply Full-steam Ahead

Nablus, the largest city in the West Bank, turned over to Palestinian self-rule this week with barely a peep from Israelis.

This makes one wonder: Where have all the demonstrators gone? Where are the strident voices of opposition to the handover, after 28 years of Israeli administration, of the major Palestinian population centers in the West Bank?

Before dawn Tuesday, the last Israeli soldiers drove out of Nablus, protected by Palestinian police from the boisterous celebrations of the town’s residents.

In Sunday’s pre-dawn hours, Palestinian autonomy came to Tulkarm; in mid- November, it was Jenin’s turn; and before the end of the month, there are similar Israeli withdrawals scheduled for Kalkilya, Ramallah and Bethlehem.

The withdrawals are all part of the latest Israeli-Palestinian accord, which extends Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank.

In the Israeli media, the withdrawal from Nablus vied for attention with Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ visit to Washington and with the ongoing strikes that have all but crippled France.

The redeployment from Nablus took place a day earlier than planned, reportedly because of intelligence warnings of terror attacks on the departing Israeli troops.

For 28 years, Israel ruled Nablus and the rest of the West Bank, having conquered it or liberated it – depending on one’s politics – in the 1967 Six- Day War.

For almost that entire period, controversy has raged over the future of the West Bank.

Then, a month ago, as a direct result of that controversy, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

Now, momentous steps go forward, ending both the controversy and the Israeli administration of the area. And the atmosphere in Israel is one of seeming apathy.

The only real incident of protest occurred in Nablus itself, when, hours before the withdrawal, a group of some 50 yeshiva students and settlers were taken into custody when they clashed with Israeli security forces in an attempt to gain access to the Tomb of Joseph in Nablus.

In the wake of those clashes, the Israel Defense Force announced that Nablus, as well as the tomb, would be closed to Israelis until Monday.

But inside Israel, all was quiet.

Would-be demonstrators would not have had to look far for appropriate slogans: By coincidence, this week’s Torah portion recounts Jacob’s sojourn in Nablus.

For its part, the parliamentary opposition makes its points with none of the anguish and fury that were its stock-in-trade in the recent past.

Even a series of terrorist incidents this week – granted, nonfatal ones – failed to elicit a vigorous outcry from that considerable section of the political spectrum that continues to oppose the peace process.

On Tuesday, two grenades were thrown at a vehicle carrying soldiers in the West Bank town of Hebron. There were no injuries in the incident, which took place at an army checkpoint near Beit Hadassah, a Jewish settlement within the town.

And Saturday night, a civilian was shot in the legs and his daughter grazed when terrorists sprayed his car with submachine-gun fire near Neveh Daniel, a West Bank settlement near Bethlehem.

The spot where the attack occurred, on the main Jerusalem-Hebron road, is passed by thousands of Israelis each day.

So why the silence? Is Israel still so stunned by Rabin’s slaying? So stunned that the normal dialogue and rivalry between government and opposition remain paralyzed?

Or has the assassination engendered so radical a shift in public opinion that opposition to the government’s peace policies with the Palestinians is no longer a major element of public life?

The answer is probably a bit of both. And Peres, the consummate politician, is moving confidently to take advantage of both aspects of the opposition’s current weakness.

The fact that Yigal Amir, Rabin’s confessed assassin, is a religious right- winger, mouthing the rhetoric of the religious right at his every court appearance, has naturally inhibited the political outspokenness of that camp.

Moreover, backlash against religious Zionists and against the right wing in general, reflected in much of the media, serves to strengthen that inhibition.

As the prime minister himself noted this week in an interview from Washington with CNN, some on the Israeli right “feel they went too far” in the stridency of their opposition to Rabin.

Thus, for instance, the hawkish National Religious Party, in negotiations with Peres’ Labor Party, has offered to basically accept Israel’s accords with the Palestinians and not to harass the government about their implementation in the months leading up to next year’s general elections in Israel.

Within the main opposition Likud Party, there is also a discernible groping for a new policy line that would not imply any desire – barring a major security crisis – to reoccupy the main West Bank towns now being evacuated by the Israel Defense Force.

Beyond the shifts within the opposition parties, the dramatic shift in public opinion in the wake of the assassination continues.

Weekend polls still showed Peres trouncing Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu in the race for prime minister, and the Labor Party winning comfortably, though by a lesser margin, over the Likud.

Rabin’s death – and especially the fact that he was killed because of his peace policy – has apparently brought a substantial number of middle-of-the-road voters to lend their support to that policy, which is not being implemented by Peres.

Confirming the significance of this shift, former Likud Minister David Magen this week declared that “Shimon Peres, not Bibi {Netanyahu], will be the next prime minister.”

Magen announced that he was quitting Likud and joining the new party led by Netanyahu’s longtime rival, David Levy.

Peres, perhaps typically, is not content to enjoy the favorable tide and let this election year go by without further drama.

His determination to strike a deal with Syrian President Hafez Aassad – which he repeatedly underscored during his visit to Washington – will test the validity of Magen’s prognosis and the depth of the change in Israeli public opinion.

The Golan Heights settlers, unlike those on the West Bank, have given notice that they do not intend to remain on the defensive for much longer.

With the 30-day mourning period for Rabin now over – and with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher scheduled to arrive in the region this weekend for a peace-seeking shuttle between Damascus and Jerusalem – they are likely to take to the streets again to protest an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan in exchange for peace with Syria.

Logically, the West Bank, teeming as it is with Palestinians, and the largely empty and strategically important Golan are not linked.

One can favor a Palestinian state in the West Bank, yet still oppose total withdrawal from the Golan.

But clearly Peres is counting on the political and psychological momentum generated inside Israel and throughout the world by the assassination of Rabin to support his energetic new drive on the Syrian track.

On Tuesday, Peres sent a message of peace to Assad in his emotional address to a joint meeting of Congress.

“Without forgetting the past let us not look back. Let fingertips touch a new hope. Let each party yield to the other, each giving consideration to the respective need of the other, mutually so,” said Peres in an emotional address Tuesday to a joint meeting of Congress.

“Without illusion but with resolve, we stand ready to make demanding decisions, if you are. We stand ready to work relentlessly until all gaps are bridged, if you are,” he said.

Peres got a thundeeous three-minute standing ovation when he entered the chamber, which continued for another minute when he was introduced. Members of Congress interrupted Peres 12 times with applause during his address, the loudest coming after his appeal to Assad.

Peres said that thanks to the support Congress has “given and to the aid you have rendered, we have been able to overcome wars and tragedies thrust upon us and feel sufficiently strong to take measured risks to wage our campaign of peace.”

Alluding to congressional skepticism about the possibility of U.S. troops monitoring a future Israeli-Syrian peace accord, Peres said, “Let me assure you that never shall we ask your sons and daughters to fight instead of ours, just as we have never asked you to do so in the past.”

Peres recalled his fallen partner in the efforts to achieve Middle East peace during his remarks.

“Two weeks and 20 years ago, Lyndon Baines Johnson stood on this very spot and said, `All I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today.’ Mr. Speaker, all I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today. My senior partner is gone,” an emotional Peres said.

Peres also rededicated himself to peace with the Palestinians during his address.

“As far as we are concerned, democracy, and that includes Palestinian democracy, is the best and probably the only ultimate guarantee for a durable peace,” he said.

Peres praised Palestine Liberation Organization head Yasser Arafat during his speech for being “engaged in the new realities of his people” and for his “solemn promise to intensify his fight against terror.”

After addressing Congress, Peres met with more than 300 American jews at the National Peace Process Advocacy Day, where he hailed their activity on Capitol Hill as “a need for us and for you. The task is not over.”

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