Behind the Headlines: Polarization Among Israelis Surfaces with Premier in U.S.

As U.S. and Middle East leaders gathered this week for an emergency summit in Washington, Israelis took to the streets to express their support for or opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s peace policies.

Couched in biblical phrases and spelled out in bold red and blue, “Prime Minister, Be Strong and of Good Courage” was the message of encouragement that young kipah-wearing supporters unfurled on banners Tuesday along the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway.

In Tel Aviv, meanwhile, anti-government activists, led by members of Peace Now, put the finishing touches to what they hoped would be a massive demonstration Tuesday night in support of a return to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process pursued by the previous Labor government.

Just north of Haifa, a small demonstration of pro-government youths formed along the highway, assuring passing drivers that “the people are with Bibi.”

Reflecting this popular activism, Israeli newspapers Tuesday carried large display ads that either backed Netanyahu or warned him not to be recalcitrant in the meetings with President Clinton and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Washington.

Israeli public opinion, still digesting the cataclysmic nature of last week’s bloodshed across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has shown enhanced polarization, with people on each side of the political divide asserting that the violence vindicated their long-held positions.

The right and religious camp is now recalling its vociferous demand of 2 1/ 2 years ago: “Don’t give them guns.” The reference is to the Palestinian Authority’s police force, whose members used those guns last week to shoot at Israeli soldiers.

The clashes left 15 Israelis and 57 Palestinians dead.

Tsomet’s Moshe Peled, the deputy minister of education, has demanded a commission of inquiry into the previous government’s decision to strike a deal with the Palestinians to provide thousands of weapons to these police.

On the other side, Labor Knesset members were demanding an inquiry into Netanyahu’s decision to open a new entrance to an archaeological tunnel that runs alongside the Western Wall, an action that sparked the outbreak of violence in the territories.

The opposition’s criticism was being fueled by the continuing efforts of Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, as well as the army’s senior command and the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, to distance themselves from the timing of Netanyahu’s decision.

Beyond the ideological polarization, however, the first public opinion poll appeared to show a dissatisfaction with Netanyahu’s overall performance, and specifically with his handling of the crisis in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The poll, published Tuesday in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, found that 79.5 percent of the 521 people surveyed favored pursuing the implementation of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords.

But 57 percent of those surveyed said Netanyahu dealt unsatisfactorily with last week’s violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The poll also said 54 percent believed that Netanyahu’s decision to open the entrance was a mistake.

Nonetheless, 60.5 percent of the respondents said they wanted to keep the tunnel entrance open.

But 80 percent want the process of implementing the peace accords to continue.

This poll does not spell danger yet for Netanyahu. Certainly, it does not reflect the widespread criticism of him in the Israeli media, nor the still- muted doubts being expressed about him among some in his own Likud Party.

Within Likud there has been talk, all speculative at this point, of forcing Netanyahu to resign if he fails to head off a resumption of the violence and to retrieve at least a modicum of Israel’s fallen standing in American and world opinion, according to Likud sources.

Meanwhile, among the opposition, Labor, Meretz and the non-parliamentary peace movements resolved Tuesday to launch a sustained and nationwide “struggle” against the government’s policy within 10 days if Netanyahu returns from Washington without having defused the crisis.

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