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NEWS ANALYSIS Israeli-Palestinian ties strained as ire over redeployment mounts

JERUSALEM, March 11 (JTA) — Arab anger over Israeli plans to build a new Jewish neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem has boiled over in the wake of the Cabinet”s decision on redeployment in the West Bank. The Cabinet voted 10-7 last Friday to turnover 9 percent of rural West Bank areas to the Palestinian Authority. That decision followed Israel”s announcement that it would build 6,500 Jewish housing units in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa. The latest moves by the Israeli government have elicited sharp criticism from Jordan”s King Hussein and Palestinian appeals to the international community to intervene in the peace process. And as Israeli-Palestinian tensions reached the brink of crisis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finds himself embroiled in a battle with members of his own coalition who maintain that too much West Bank land is being given away. During a visit to Russia this week, Netanyahu said of the Arab reaction: “This kind of doomsday talk and the whole histrionic attitude towards obvious disagreement is itself not conducive to the [peace] process. “We have disagreement,”” the prime minister said. “We cannot at every stage of this agreement engage in cataclysmic predictions and talk of crisis and violence.”” Palestinian officials said too little of the West Bank was being transferred to them and criticized Israel for unilaterally determining the extent of the transfer. In an indication of the extent of the anger the Cabinet decision provoked, Jordan”s King Hussein — traditionally Israel”s closest friend in the region — sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying that the premier had committed “accumulated acts of a tragic nature”” and that the recent Israeli construction and redeployment decisions could destroy the peace process. “Peace, which is the most important aim of my life, appears more and more like a distant mirage,”” the official Jordanian news agency Petra quoted the king as saying in the letter. Jordanian officials, meanwhile, broadly hinted that the crisis with the Palestinians could affect Jordan”s relations with Israel. The two countries signed a peace treaty in 1994. “The peace process is going through crisis, a real crisis,”” Jordanian Prime Minister Abdul Karim al-Kabariti said after talks Tuesday in Amman with Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai. “We warn of unilateral moves that could lead us to difficult choices,”” Kabariti added. Mordechai downplayed tensions with Jordan, saying there were misunderstandings that he believed could be overcome. The Jordanian warnings came as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was in Washington, seeking — and to a large extent getting — American officials to push Israel on Har Homa. Palestinian officials, meanwhile, sharply criticized what they said was an insubstantial transfer of West Bank lands to their control. They charged that the Cabinet decision was meaningless because much of the land to be transferred already was under their civilian control. Two percent of the land to be transferred would come from areas that now are under full Israeli control. “Israel is pushing us into a corner, making us desperate,”” Mohammad Dahlan, head of the Palestinian security service in the Gaza Strip, told the Israeli daily Ma”ariv. “The street is heating up and about to boil.”” The Hebron agreement, signed in January, stipulates that Israel make three redeployments from the West Bank before mid-1998. But the accord does not detail the extent of the redeployments, which Israel and the United States say is up to the Jewish state alone to determine. Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat rejected the Israeli transfer of West Bank lands, leaving uncertain when — or if — the planned transfer would take place. Palestinian officials have denied reports that Arafat suspended all contacts with the Jewish state, but it remained unlikely that the final- status negotiations would resume next week as originally called for in the Hebron accord. On Tuesday, Arafat invited diplomats from the United States, Russia and the European Union to join Arab representatives in Gaza this weekend to discuss how to salvage the peace process. In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the United States would attend the Gaza meeting “if an invitation is formally issued.”” Foreign Minister David Levy warned that any resort to international pressure was a clear violation of the peace accords, which “state that all matters in dispute between Israel and the Palestinians will be resolved by the sides in negotiations.”” The increased tensions were underscored by a stabbing attack early Tuesday morning in the West Bank, where a 19-year-old Israeli soldier guarding the Omarim settlement south of Hebron sustained severe wounds in the head and chest after repeated stabbings by two assailants. He was listed in serious but stable condition at Soroka Hospital in Beersheba. Israeli security forces carrying out searches in the Palestinian village of Dahariya arrested a number of suspects. The Palestinian officials initially conveyed their anger over the scope of the transfer during a meeting Sunday night between Levy and Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu-Mazen, who serves as second- in-command to Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat. On Monday, Abu-Mazen threatened to resign over the dispute with Israel. A senior Israeli political source quoted by Israel Radio said that after last Friday”s Cabinet decision, at least two efforts by Netanyahu to contact Arafat by telephone had been rebuffed. Israeli security forces, meanwhile, were ordered to be on alert for any violent Palestinian reaction. Several hundred Palestinians trying to prevent construction of a new road near the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba clashed Monday with Israeli security forces. Witnesses said that at least 10 Palestinians were injured after Israeli forces beat back angry stone-throwers. In addition to the Palestinian criticism, Netanyahu found himself facing opposition from members of his own coalition, who threatened to vote no-confidence in the government. The prime minister met with hawkish coalition members on Sunday, before a trip to Russia this week, hoping to persuade them not to abandon his government. One of the parliamentarians, Shaul Yahalom of the National Religious Party, called on his party Monday to pull out of the government. The NRP rejected the proposal. Netanyahu”s contacts also appeared to be aimed at gauging support in the Knesset for a number of legislative initiatives aimed at ousting the prime minister. One such proposal, sponsored by Labor Knesset member Moshe Shahal, would require a simple majority of 61 of the 120 legislators to oust the prime minister without calling for new general elections. Under current law, the no-confidence vote of a simple parliamentary majority would result in new elections for both prime minister and for the Knesset. A majority of 80 Knesset members voting no-confidence would result in a new vote for prime minister, but no new parliamentary elections. Netanyahu indicated that if his conciliatory approach with coalition members fails, he was ready to play hardball and consider forming a national unity government with the Labor Party. But opposition leader Shimon Peres said Labor would not join a unity government. He said the idea would not even be considered until police concluded their investigation of alleged wrongdoing among government officials in the short-lived appointment of Jerusalem attorney Roni Bar-On as attorney general earlier this year. “Until this issue ends, there is absolutely nothing to talk about,”” Peres told Israel Radio.