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NEWS ANALYSIS Netanyahu ready to place Wye accord back on track

JERUSALEM, Nov. 10 (JTA) – After Islamic terrorists twice tried to derail the peace process in the three weeks since the signing of the Wye agreement, the Israeli government has decided to begin moving toward ratifying the accord. The Israeli Cabinet and Knesset were expected to begin discussing the accord Wednesday. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had postponed ratification because of the terror attacks. The Cabinet was convening with a solid majority of ministers planning to support ratification, and in the Knesset an even larger majority was expected to endorse the accord because the Labor opposition had promised Netanyahu a “safety net” of votes to protect him from any hard-right defections. The Cabinet had been in session last Friday, with the clear intention of ratifying the accord before the Sabbath, when word of a car-bomb blast at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, barely a mile away, prompted the premier to bring the proceedings to a peremptory halt. A week earlier, a car-bomber missed a school bus full of children outside a Gaza Strip settlement, killing an Israeli soldier in a jeep that was escorting the bus. Last Friday, only the two suicide bombers were killed in the teeming market; a score of shoppers were injured – but most of them lightly. Had either of these attacks achieved the perpetrators’ intended results, the Wye agreement may well have unraveled. On the Palestinian side, and indeed among some left-wing Israelis, the feeling is that Netanyahu, while obviously grieving innocent Israeli deaths, would have welcomed an excuse to escape implementing the further 13 percent redeployment in the West Bank called for under the Wye accord. As it is, relentless pressure both from the American go-betweens and from his own defense minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, has brought the prime minister back on track – provided, of course, that Israeli and Palestinian efforts to prevent further terror outrages bear fruit. Mordechai is resisting a move led by Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon to couple Israel’s implementation with high-profile government support for building at the controversial Har Homa site in southeastern Jerusalem. Similarly, the defense establishment, led by Mordechai and backed by somber warnings from the intelligence community, is opposing demands from the settlers for a new West Bank road to bypass the refugee camp of el-Aroub between Hebron and the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. The army and Israel’s domestic security service, the Shin Bet, warn of violent protests if that plan goes forward. But with or without formal Cabinet approval, expansion work is proceeding in at least half a dozen West Bank Jewish settlements, according to substantiated Peace Now reports. While these have triggered some Palestinian objections, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and his top officials have been markedly low-key in all their public statements during the past several weeks. Political observers say the Palestinians feel that they have Washington in their corner and therefore prefer to remain quiet while U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her aides press Israel to make a start on implementation. Not wishing to appear to be bowing to either U.S. or Palestinian pressures, Netanyahu was apparently in no hurry to reconvene the Cabinet before nationwide municipal elections took place Tuesday. With exquisite timing, he had the announcement of the Cabinet’s reconvening made just a few hours before the polling stations closed – just to reassure that section of the electorate that supports Likud or Likud-allied candidates and wants the Likud-led government to move ahead with the peace process. Even if the Cabinet and Knesset ratify the accord, there are still more hurdles ahead – including the question of how the Palestine National Council will abrogate the anti-Israeli clauses in the Palestinian charter. Israel insists on a formal convocation and vote. American officials apparently believe that, with President Clinton planning personally to attend an assembly of PNC and other Palestinian leaders in Gaza in mid-December, they can finesse this issue to the ultimate satisfaction of Israeli public opinion – if not of Israel’s hard-line ministers. Clinton apparently intends to actively participate in the deliberations and himself put to a vote-by-acclamation the prior decisions of PLO institutions abrogating the charter. But mid-December is a long way off, and the phased implementation process is scheduled to last three months – a long time for what is by all accounts a shaky peace process.