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Scale of redeployment angers Knesset members, Palestinians

JERUSALEM, March 10 (JTA) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing criticism on two fronts after his Cabinet approved the turnover of 9 percent of rural West Bank areas to the Palestinian Authority. 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. Meanwhile, members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition said too much was being given away and issued warnings that they would topple his government. The Palestinian officials conveyed their anger over the scope of the transfer during a meeting Sunday night between Foreign Minister David 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. Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat accused Israel of violating their signed agreements. Netanyahu, who left Monday for a three-day official visit to Russia, appeared unfazed by the Palestinian outrage. Netanyahu was quoted as saying that the Palestinians have finally realized that a new, nationalist government was in power in 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. The source, on the premier’s plane to Russia, was quoted as saying that in Netanyahu’s absence, Levy had been instructed to continue efforts to resolve the crisis with the Palestinian leadership. Israeli security forces were meanwhile 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. Within hours after the clash near the West Bank town of Hebron, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai met with Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo in an effort to defuse the tensions. Rabbo told reporters after the meeting at a Tel Aviv hotel that the situation was rapidly deteriorating. “There is a crisis, and the crisis is becoming worse and worse,” he said. Palestinian anger already was simmering over Israeli decisions to build housing for Jews at Har Homa in southeastern Jerusalem and to issue closure orders for four Palestinian offices operating in eastern Jerusalem. Tensions were further heightened by the Israeli government decision to transfer 9 percent of the West Bank to self-rule — a move that fell far below Palestinian expectations. In the Sunday meeting with Levy, Abu-Mazen had demanded that the Palestinians be consulted on the scope of the withdrawals. The Hebron agreement stipulates that Israel will 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. In addition to the Palestinian criticism, Netanyahu found himself facing a second battle from members of his own coalition. The prime minister spent most of the day preceding his departure for Russia in meetings with hawkish coalition members, hoping to persuade them not to abandon his government. His only apparent success was with Deputy Education Minister Moshe Peled of Tsomet. Peled said after the meeting that Netanyahu’s promise to build in the territories had convinced him to retract his threat. One of the parliamentarians, Shaul Yahalom of the National Religious Party, called on his party Monday to pull out of the government. He also called for an early election and a new right-wing candidate for prime minister, but his proposal to the NRP caucus was rejected. Netanyahu’s contacts also appeared to be aimed at gauging support in the Knesset for a number of legislative initiatives to amend the current law relating to the direct election of 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. After the Cabinet’s 10-7 vote last Friday, eight Knesset members threatened to vote no-confidence in the government if Netanyahu did not change his policies. A Knesset vote on a no-confidence motion was possible later this week after Netanyahu returned from Russia. The coalition members were angered by the inclusion of 2 percent of land defined as Area C, under sole Israeli control, as part of the first of three further redeployments from rural West Bank areas called for in the Hebron accord. They demanded assurances from Netanyahu for some of their own key interests, including no further delays for construction projects in Jerusalem and the territories. The coalition holds 66 seats in the 120-member Parliament; two seats are held by the far-right Moledet, which is not a coalition member. Netanyahu has indicated that if the conciliatory approach fails in his talks with coalition members, he also was ready to play hardball. The Israeli daily Ha’aretz quoted the prime minister as saying that if he had no other choice, he would turn to the Labor Party to discuss forming a national unity government. 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. Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai said Sunday that he expected implementation of the Cabinet decision on redeployment to take place later this week.