Israeli Society Prepares for Jolt As It Will Soon Make Big Decisions

As Israeli and Palestinian leaders cut through decades of sacred axioms and slogans, striving to reach an agreement at Camp David, Israeli society braced itself this week for what could be the toughest- ever challenge to its cohesion.

Because of the U.S.-imposed media blackout, a pall of secrecy lay heavy over the summit’s proceedings.

But despite all the uncertainty and the tidbits of disinformation peddled by both parties to the talks, a cautious belief that the summit would not end in failure seemed to be growing.

An agreement — the scope of which was still shrouded in mystery — appeared to be evolving at the presidential retreat in Maryland.

For the Israeli public, tension climbed to near-fever pitch as an entire country found itself obsessively seeking out every whisper of news, rumor or speculation.

On Tuesday morning, the country’s largest-selling newspaper, Yediot Achronot, proclaimed in a banner headline that Barak was returning home “empty-handed.”

But as the day wore on, that “scoop” seemed to become increasingly premature, not to say mistaken.

For the hundreds of thousands of citizens who demonstrated Sunday night in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square against Barak’s peace policy, the tilt of the reporting from Washington grew ominous.

But, by the same token, for hundreds of thousands of others, the news from Camp David seemed steadily more promising.

The pollsters say there is a majority that is prepared to compromise, even regarding Jerusalem, in return for a peace that will end the 100-year conflict.

But Barak cannot make do with a slim victory in the referendum — or election – - that will follow his return, if indeed he brings a draft agreement with him.

He needs a solid “Jewish majority” — that is, a majority that is not dependent on the votes of the nation’s 18 percent Israeli Arab population.

Less than that would mean, in the eyes of many people here, that the issue has not been settled in a Zionist and democratic fashion.

Beyond the voting and the politics — and the rising tension that will doubtless attend them in the weeks ahead if the country is indeed called upon to make a fateful decision — observers here are worried about possible provocations by extremists.

Whether Jewish or Arab, the extremists could instantaneously turn the West Bank into a raging conflagration.

In this respect, Jewish and Palestinian extremists are, perhaps paradoxically, in the same camp — the anti-agreement camp.

Violent altercations between them, or acts of violence perpetrated by either of them against innocent civilians, are the great danger that will loom over any agreement that is concluded at Camp David.

A mild taste of what could come was experienced over the weekend in the West Bank town of Hebron. Jewish settlers and local Palestinians clashed for two days after a settler girl claimed she was sexually assaulted by a Palestinian.

The army was slow to move in and separate the two sides in the tinderbox town. Just the same, there were no fatalities, although some injuries were sustained by Palestinians, settlers and soldiers.

Had there been any fatalities, the rioting could quickly have spread to engulf the whole town.

Observers point to large pockets of deep distrust of Arafat among the Palestinian populace — in addition to the consistent opposition led by Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas.

This week the sheik issued a call to Arafat to break off the talks, return home and rejoin the armed struggle against the Zionist state.

There could be no real solution to the conflict, Yassin asserted, other than the elimination of Israel.

No such incitement has been uttered publicly on the Israeli side.

But Israeli security officials know there are extremists in some of the settlements, especially those that Barak may cede to the Palestinians.

Moreover, amid reports of likely Israeli concessions regarding Jerusalem, and particularly the Temple Mount, fears are also mounting that there will be violent disturbances in the Holy City.

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