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Support Grows in Israel for Mideast Peace Plan : Accord: 'My gut tells me it will work,' a former foe says of PLO pact. Opposition has failed to galvanize.

September 20, 1993|MICHAEL PARKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — After recovering from the shock of secret negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization and watching Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shake hands with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, Israelis are starting to feel that the accord on Palestinian self-government might prove to be a good deal.

"Let's give it a chance," said Moshe Bar-Lev, 37, a butcher in Tel Aviv, who initially thought the agreement "absolutely suicidal. We're strong enough to run the risk, and the risk is not all that large.

"If we win big, it will be peace for us and our kids. If it fails, we either seal off (the West Bank and Gaza Strip), or go in again and slap them down. But my gut tells me it will work, not perfectly but good enough."

Sentiments of "give it a try" and "good enough" are growing up and down Israel. The initial confusion and apprehension over the country's security appear to have yielded to quiet assent. People are returning to business as usual, accepting some of the most dramatic developments in Israeli history.

"Sure, this could turn out badly, but we have to try it," Ronit Freudheim, 44, a government statistician, said. "I had big doubts--who can trust the PLO?--but mostly I was in shock. This agreement, of course, has inducements for the Palestinians, but it also has protection for us. We try and we hope."

Opinion surveys since the accord was announced at the end of August show support coalescing behind it, confirming Rabin's mandate to yield territory for peace.

A poll taken last week among 523 Jews by the marketing agency Dahaf for Yediot Aharonot, the country's largest newspaper, showed 61% supporting the agreement, 37% opposed and 2% expressing no opinion.

A poll taken a week earlier with the same questions showed 57% in favor, 41% opposed and 2% with no opinion. Ten days before that, the poll showed 53% in favor, 45% opposed and 2% without an opinion.

Surveys taken for the American Jewish Committee and for CNN in the same period confirm that support for the accord is solidifying despite serious questions and even clear misgivings about some aspects, notably the ability of the Palestinians to maintain order and prevent terrorism.

Starting even earlier, opinion surveys showed that more and more Israelis had come to back withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, direct negotiations with the PLO and a Palestinian state so that ideas that once had been regarded as "ultra-left" in Israeli politics slowly became mainstream.

"What took us aback about this agreement," Jack Friedman, 59, a Tel Aviv travel agent, said, "was the speed and the secrecy, the shock of it all coming overnight. . . . Now that we have seen Rabin and Arafat at the White House, read the agreements, heard the experts, it doesn't look bad.

"Me and the guys I do civil guard duty with, we decided after a lot of discussion that, as a chance for peace, this is worth a try. We are worried, yeah, but we still think it's worth a real try."

In contrast, opposition groups--the Likud and other right-wing parties, the settlers movement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the ultra-Orthodox Habad organization--have failed to galvanize the nation the way they predicted.

"The simple truth is that there is a larger spontaneous majority in favor of the settlement than against it," political commentator Gideon Samet of the influential newspaper Haaretz argued, asserting that a "new Israeli majority" is emerging and will support this and other peace agreements.

"This is a quiet, secular and maybe a little tired majority, which is mostly busy with its own affairs," he asserted.

Rabin in private meetings over the past three weeks has alluded frequently to the importance of this emerging majority in the political calculations he made during the negotiations with the Palestinians, and on Sunday he spoke confidently of winning the support of 75% of Israelis.

Yosef Cohen, 53, an accountant in the industrial center of Haifa, said he came to support the agreement as "the best way out" of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"It took me a long time to realize how problematic these settlements were, how much of a military and financial and political burden, and how very, very few of our people, maybe 3%, wanted to live out there. But once I did, I thought, it's not fair that this 3% or 4% make us pay the price," he said.

Skepticism remains strong, however, and often verges on suspicion, the result of decades of enmity. The same opinion polls that show growing support for Rabin reflect continuing apprehension about the PLO.

"I'm sick of war and violence," Beth Ann Golden, 37, a teacher in a Jerusalem suburb, said, "but it does not follow that this agreement, giving the Palestinians half a state, will end the violence. . . .

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