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Rabin Talks to Right Wing to Strengthen Coalition : Mideast: Israeli leader says massacre weakened government. But Tsomet Party opposes PLO agreement on self-rule.


JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said Thursday that he is negotiating with the right-wing Tsomet Party in an effort to broaden his coalition government, even though the party opposes the agreement he signed with the Palestine Liberation Organization on Palestinian self-government.

"I see it as an urgent necessity to broaden the coalition basis of the government, and I intend to take action to reach that goal," Rabin declared, asserting the massacre of 48 Palestinians in a Hebron mosque last week left his minority government even weaker than before.

Although Tsomet's incorporation in the Cabinet would bring the government five more seats in Parliament, giving it a one-vote majority, the party's staunch opposition to the autonomy agreement and to withdrawal from any occupied territory would throw into question Rabin's ability, even his willingness, to proceed with peace negotiations.

The left-wing Meretz Party, a member of the governing coalition with Rabin's Labor Party, voiced its strong objections to Tsomet and threatened to pull out if Rabin brought it into the Cabinet.

Founded in 1987, Tsomet is committed to holding all of the biblical Land of Israel, to increasing Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank and to a tougher line on security issues.

"In the severe circumstances that developed following the massacre in Hebron, Tsomet's joining (the government) will be seen as a negative message to our Palestinian partners in negotiations, to Israeli Arabs . . . and to the peace process in general and its chances for advancing," Meretz warned.

But Rabin said the coalition needed a "strong base" and it was "unthinkable" for crucial decisions on peace to be made by a minority government.

Rabin now has 56 of 120 members of the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, in his coalition; 44 come from Labor, 12 from Meretz. Five legislators from Arab and Communist parties outside the government also back him.

"The Hebron massacre makes reliance on as wide as possible a coalition in Parliament all the more important," Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said. "We are talking about Tsomet joining, in effect without changing the (government's) guidelines. We will definitely regard this as an important and welcome addition."

Ahmed Tibi, a senior adviser to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, nonetheless warned that Tsomet's inclusion in the Cabinet would "cast a shadow over the future of the peace process" and would run counter to the basic agreement between Israel and the PLO.

Tsomet leader Rafael Eitan is best-known as the army chief of staff who led Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, a campaign now regarded as a disastrous military adventure. He has opposed any withdrawal from territory--whether the West Bank, Golan Heights or Gaza Strip--that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War.

Before retiring from the army in 1983, Eitan boasted to a parliamentary committee: "When we have settled the land, all the Arabs will be able to do about it will be to scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a bottle."

According to Israeli press reports of the negotiations with Rabin, Eitan would become police minister in charge of Israel's internal security. He would accept the accord on Palestinian self-government with the explanation that he could better serve Israel now by joining the Cabinet to ensure minimal damage was done in its implementation.

But Rabin's discussions with Eitan may be a feint to force Meretz to make compromises necessary to lure Shas, an ultra-Orthodox religious party, back into the government where it has opposed liberal human rights legislation that is a Meretz priority.

"We in Meretz are committed to this government, and this government has done many great things for peace," Environment Minister Yossi Sarid said. "It still has great challenges ahead.

"We must be able to distinguish between what's important and what's less important," Sarid continued, suggesting that Meretz was prepared for compromises on key issues, such as women's rights, where it quarreled with Shas.

Arye Deri, the Shas leader who resigned from the Cabinet when indicted for corruption, confidently predicted Thursday evening that not only his party would return to the government within a week but that a small, three-member parliamentary group that recently split from Tsomet would also join, leaving Tsomet in the opposition.

On Thursday, Israel released 400 more Palestinian prisoners in a goodwill gesture intended to halt the violent protests that followed the Hebron mosque massacre and to persuade the PLO to return to the negotiations on implementing the autonomy agreement.

But B'Tselem, a leading Israel human rights group, accused the army of arresting nearly as many Palestinians as it freed in suppressing anti-Israeli demonstrations on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

About 40 people were injured Thursday in clashes with troops.

Israeli authorities also continued their crackdown on extremist Jewish settlers, issuing orders for the detention of five more of their leaders and banning 18 others from entering Palestinian areas.

Settler leaders declared that they will not turn in their army-issued weapons if ordered and will resist other measures against them.

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