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Left, Right Make Their Voices Heard As Israelis Fight War of Public Opinion

As the Camp David negotiations proceed amid a media blackout, left-and right-wing activists here have been mobilizing to convey their stances about the summit.

Jewish settlers and their supporters held a mass rally Sunday in Tel Aviv to protest any concessions Prime Minister Ehud Barak may make to the Palestinians at the summit. Some 1,500 police officers were stationed in the area to secure the event, which drew an estimated tens of thousands.

On the other side of the political divide, Israelis supporting Barak’s peace efforts formed a convoy of cars traveling over the weekend from Tel Aviv to Haifa.

Activists from the left and right were posted at major intersections in Israel over the weekend, handing out bumper stickers and bearing banners with their respective messages.

In the West Bank town of Hebron, scene of frequent clashes over the years, divisions between Jewish settlers and Palestinians erupted Sunday into curses and blows during the second day of clashes there. At least one person was hospitalized.

Settlers said the fighting began a day earlier when a Palestinian attempted to sexually assault a 14-year-old Jewish girl. Palestinian officials denied the charge, calling it a pretext by settlers hoping to see the Camp David summit fail.

In another development involving settlers Sunday, Israeli police dragged away dozens of young Jewish settlers from a West Bank hilltop where they had erected a tent to protest the Camp David summit.

Organizers of the protest, many of them in their teens, said their action was taken independently of the mainstream Yesha Council, which represents settlers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

That same day in Jerusalem, right-wing Israeli political leaders met at the urging of Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert to come up with a strategy to counter what they claim is Barak’s willingness to divide the city.

Among those present were the leaders of the National Religious Party and the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, who until last week served as ministers in Barak’s government.

President Clinton “must understand that the majority of the people of Israel is congregated here, against the division of Jerusalem,” said Shas leader Eli Yishai. “This message must go directly to Camp David, the prime minister and the members of the delegations.”

Likud Knesset member Danny Naveh told Israel Radio that Barak’s declaration that he would never abandon the idea of a united Jerusalem at Camp David is misleading.

“What he does not tell the public is his plan to transfer certain [Arab] neighborhoods within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries to Palestinian municipal control,” said Naveh, who claimed that this would “begin a process of division of the city.”

These claims were rejected by Cabinet minister Haim Ramon.

“The prime minister has no intention of dividing Jerusalem. There is an absolute commitment that Jerusalem will remain united under Israeli sovereignty,” Ramon told Israel Radio. “I am convinced that this red line will not be crossed.”

Looming over the Camp David talks is a Sept. 13 target date for reaching a final agreement.

In more immediate terms, Clinton’s scheduled departure Wednesday to attend a meeting of major industrial nations in Japan is likely to intensify the talks as the sides attempt to reach an agreement ending their decades-long conflict.

Because of the virtual news blackout imposed by the American hosts on the talks, little has been revealed so far about the substance of the discussions, which must address the most difficult issues in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, including Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, final borders and Jewish settlements.

The Israeli media were busy trying to read the tea leaves after Barak telephoned several leading politicians to brief them on the summit’s progress.

According to Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating positions at Camp David remain far apart.

Speaking after a telephone conversation with Barak, Levy said earlier statements made by Palestinian officials that the two sides were making progress are “baseless.”

According to legislator Yosef “Tommy” Lapid of the of left-wing Shinui Party, who also spoke with Barak, the premier is “not very optimistic.”

Lapid would not elaborate, saying Barak had asked that he not comment publicly on their conversation.

Barak also briefed Ramon, who confirmed reports that the discussions have been difficult.

“What I can say is that it is no picnic,” he said. “These are very difficult and problematic negotiations.”

However, Ramon repeated his view that if the two sides are able to agree to put off dealing with the contentious issue of Jerusalem, the chances of reaching an agreement are good.

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