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At Fork in Road, Netanyahu Faces Difficult Choice


JERUSALEM — As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boarded a jet Monday bound for a summit with President Clinton and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, some members of the Israeli leader's Likud Party admonished him to stand firm in Washington: "Be strong," their banners said. "Don't make concessions."

But if Netanyahu looked at the Israeli newspapers on his plane, he will have found attacks on the right wing's ironfisted approach to the Palestinians, including a cartoon of him with an inflated muscle exploding like a volcano. Netanyahu may not like Israel's bilateral peace accords with the Palestinians, an editorial in the liberal Haaretz newspaper said, but "the alternative is chaos."

Indeed, this is the difficult choice facing Netanyahu as he sits across from Arafat today for only the second time: to embrace a peace process that he and his supporters fundamentally reject--and make concessions--or to risk further combat between Israeli soldiers and armed Palestinian police--and face the consequences.

Last week, such confrontations left more than 70 dead, including 15 Israelis, and 1,000 wounded.

Critical of Netanyahu's handling of the crisis, Israelis from both sides of the political divide want the embattled prime minister to exercise leadership at the summit and give a clear indication of which direction he will take in the peace process.

Some political observers say Netanyahu tried to have it both ways in his first 100 days in office, pursuing the form of peacemaking without the substance. He met with Arafat while authorizing the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank; he increased the number of work permits for Palestinians while rejecting negotiations over the basic issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian statehood.

This approach blew apart when Netanyahu agreed to discuss pulling Israeli troops out of the West Bank city of Hebron but then opened an archeological tunnel near the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City. That middle-of-the-night move prompted Arafat to call protest marches that ignited riots and, ultimately, armed combat.

"It seems now that he has exhausted his freedom of maneuver," political analyst Aluf Ben wrote of Netanyahu in Haaretz.

The peace accords signed by Arafat and Netanyahu's Labor Party predecessors three years ago gave Palestinians self-rule in six West Bank cities and held out the promise of more. Israel was supposed to give over larger parts of West Bank land it captured in the 1967 Six-Day War and to negotiate the issues of Jewish settlement, Palestinian statehood and control of East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as a capital.

The Palestinians saw the autonomy agreement as a step toward the independent state for which they have fought for decades. The Labor Party had dropped its opposition to statehood, and the previous Israeli government apparently was prepared to give Arab neighborhoods on the outskirts of Jerusalem to the Palestinians as their capital.

But all of this came to a halt with Netanyahu's election in May. Netanyahu was a harsh critic of the land-for-peace agreements as he campaigned to become prime minister of a country deeply divided by these issues. He promised "peace with security," won by a narrow margin and, upon taking office with a rightist-religious coalition, reluctantly agreed to honor the Israeli-Palestinian accords.

But Netanyahu still called them "bad." His heart was not in them, and his political coalition was not behind them either. His right-wing supporters believe that the accords gave Jewish land to Palestinians without receiving peace in return--and last week's violence was their proof.

They say they believe the only way to deal with Arabs is through force and that the worst thing Netanyahu can do in Washington is to reward Palestinian violence. This faction, represented by Cabinet ministers Ariel Sharon and Binyamin Begin, argues that Israel must hold on to most of the West Bank for security reasons as well as on Jewish religious grounds.

Thus, they oppose withdrawal of Israeli troops from Hebron. There, about 450 Jews live--among more than 100,000 Palestinians--in the center of town near the Cave of the Patriarchs. The shrine, which is believed to be the burial place of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and is holy to Muslims and Jews, was the site of a 1994 massacre by a Jewish gunman that left about 30 Palestinians dead.

If it was difficult for Netanyahu to go against his party and coalition before last week's gun battles, now he must find it even tougher, because his hard-line supporters argue that if Palestinian police fired on Israeli soldiers, the Arafat force could massacre Jewish civilians in Hebron.

Arafat insists that the Washington summit must produce a date for Israeli troops to pull out of Hebron, the only West Bank city still under Israeli occupation. Under the schedule laid out in the accords, Hebron was to have gone to the Palestinians in March.

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