JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, rejecting past Israeli claims to the West Bank and other occupied Arab territories, called on his countrymen Thursday to abandon the concept of a "Greater Land of Israel" and to give up that land for peace with their Arab neighbors.
In one of his strongest appeals for withdrawing from occupied Arab territory, Rabin told Israelis that they simply could not hope to control all of biblical Israel and that trying to do so would put the Jewish state at risk.
"We must cut ourselves off from the religion of the Greater Land of Israel and remember that the strength of a nation is not measured in the territories it controls," Rabin said, "but by its beliefs and its ability to develop social, economic and security systems."
Although Rabin had made clear throughout the spring election campaign that he would pursue "land-for-peace" negotiations with Israel's neighbors, the prime minister drew an even sharper line between himself and Yitzhak Shamir, his ultra-Zionist predecessor, on this fundamental question.
Rabin seemed, at once, to be attempting to persuade still-skeptical Arabs, notably the Palestinians, of Israel's sincerity in the renewed Middle East peace talks in Washington and to be preparing Israelis for the massive retreat likely under a peace treaty.
"Philosophically, ideologically and politically, Rabin is defining his government's position, first of all, on the peace process," a senior Western diplomat commented, "and he is rejecting as a starting point the whole 'Land of Israel' concept that guided the country for the past 15 years as it settled more and more Arab land.
"But Rabin is also articulating a vision of Israel that he believes the majority of the nation shares and that he hopes will shape the country as it enters the 21st Century, and this will evolve further."
Reacting to Rabin's statements, Moshe Katzav, a leading member of Shamir's Likud Party, told Reuters news agency that they cast doubt on his pre-election promise that he would oppose a Palestinian state.
Rabin addressed a conference of the Washington Institute for Mid-East Research and then the annual meeting of the Israeli Manufacturers Assn. in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, but his remarks were not published until Thursday.
Israel, Rabin told the businessmen, has only limited time to make peace.
"The Israeli government is taking risks to advance the peace process in the Middle East," he said. "We have a period of about two to five years in which the dangers to our security are lower because of the changes in the international reality."
After that, he implied, the balance of power in the region and the world at large could quickly shift against Israel, making it difficult even to conclude treaties with neighboring Arab countries or resolve the Palestinian issue.
Rabin said that, even with the tough negotiations that lie ahead, he expects an agreement with the Arabs within nine to 12 months, including a plan for Palestinian self-rule on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But he warned the Palestinians that Israel will maintain a strong military presence in the occupied lands during the five-year interim period of autonomy that is under negotiation.
"We are in control of the territory, and we will not budge a centimeter," Rabin said. While willing to cede land for peace, Rabin's Labor Party says that it is against establishment of a Palestinian state.
Expressing his impatience at what he regards as the Palestinian delegation's slowness in coming to grips with the key issues in the Washington talks, Rabin said that Israel will make no further goodwill moves toward residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip until there is substantial movement in the negotiations.
"Without progress in the negotiations, Israel won't make additional gestures toward the Palestinians," he warned. Gestures over the past two weeks have included the release of a reported 600 Palestinian prisoners before the completion of their sentences, cancellation of deportation orders against 11 prominent Palestinian activists and the removal of barricades around the West Bank.
"The Palestinian tendency is to deal with the symptoms of the disease, not the disease itself," Rabin complained, accusing leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who advise the Palestinian negotiators, of using a hard-line strategy and delaying progress.
Concerning the populous but poor Gaza Strip, which Israel seized from Egypt in the 1967 Middle East War, Rabin said that Israel could not even give away that territory and that he wished it would slide quickly and quietly into the sea.
"Try to give it back to the Egyptians, and they will say, 'You are stuck with it,' " Rabin said. "I wish the Gaza Strip would sink into the water, but I cannot find for it such a solution."
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said in a television interview Thursday that the latest round of Middle East peace talks in Washington yielded "the best 10 days ever" in Israel's relations with Syria.
"In the 44 years since the founding of Israel, there have never been 10 days like these in Syrian-Israeli relations," Peres told Israel television's Arabic service. "From the peace standpoint these have been the best 10 days ever. We sat together, and we listened to each other. I cannot say that these 10 days brought peace, but they produced a chance."
Peres, citing an Israeli agreement to discuss territorial compromise on the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 war, said, "The Syrians cannot complain that there has been no movement--there has been."
The Arab and Israeli negotiators held their last sessions Thursday before a 10-day recess, and Israeli and Arab delegates alike expressed their hope that the other side would reassess its positions and return to the talks ready to make changes. The talks originally had been scheduled to run for a month without a break, but the Israelis asked for a recess to consult their government.