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Israel: Will Staring Into The Abyss Get Peace Back On Track?

International Outlook


Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's 72-year-old Prime Minister, is certainly no stranger to combat. He has been a central figure in many of Israel's wars, starting with the War of Independence in 1948. But rarely has he been so embattled as now. Agreements painstakingly worked out in Oslo and Cairo with the Palestine Liberation Organization's Yassir Arafat are in tatters. Terrorist attacks against Israelis since Rabin and Arafat shook hands in Washington 16 months ago have left 148 Israelis dead. And recent polls show that only 28% of Israelis support Rabin, compared with 50% who back Benjamin Netanyahu, his telegenic archrival from the conservative Likud Party.

But as elsewhere in the Middle East, appearances may be deceptive--and Rabin and the peace process may have a lot of life in them yet. Israeli, Egyptian, Palestinian, and Jordanian leaders are trying to get things back on track with a Feb. 2 summit in Cairo. "Sometimes things don't open up until people stare at the possibility of failure and take it seriously," says William B. Quandt, a Middle East specialist at the University of Virginia.

Interest is focusing on the idea of separating Israel from the Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza. The point is to protect Israelis, but separation would also speed up creation of a de facto Palestinian ministate and, therefore, also appeals to the Palestinians. A peace between two carefully separated states, many Israelis and Palestinians are starting to realize, will probably be easier to maintain than the borderless common market promoted until recently. "Theoretically, separation should be good for the Palestinians," says Gil Feiler, Managing Director of Info-Prod, a Tel Aviv-based economic consulting firm. "It could lead to improved cooperation in the long run."

In late January, the Israeli Finance and Police Ministries both moved to set up emergency working committees to plot the mechanics of separation. Meanwhile, Jerusalem is moving quickly to make up for the loss of the Palestinians who had done a lot of the low-paid work in the Israeli economy by speeding up entry procedures for workers from Thailand and other countries. For the first time, there are more foreign workers in Israel--45,000--than Palestinians.

Despite its anemic showing in opinion polls, Rabin's government is in little danger of losing majority control of the Knesset until scheduled elections in summer, 1996. Then the big question mark will be the potent new swing vote represented by Israel's 500,000 recent Russian immigrants. But Russian voters are more disenchanted over the difficulty of finding well-paid jobs than anxious about security.

CRACKDOWN. In the meantime, Rabin is also getting some badly needed reinforcement from the Clinton Administration, which took a backseat to Israeli and PLO negotiators in recent months. With a visit by Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher to the Middle East expected in a few weeks, Washington's role as power broker is intensifying. One subject for Christopher's agenda: speeding up the $500 million U.S. aid to Palestinians as an incentive for Arafat to crack down on extremist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

In the end, that aid could prove crucial. The danger of Rabin's gamble on separation is that closing the borders strangles Palestinian areas economically--thus playing directly into the hands of Hamas and other groups. And Israelis also worry that even cordoning off Palestinian areas might not stop terrorist acts. Israeli settlers in the West Bank would still be vulnerable, and Israeli police report that Palestinian groups can now forge Israeli identity cards. The bottom line is that the peace process is continuing, but the peace could wind up looking very different than expected.By John Rossant in Rome and Neal Sandler in Jerusalem EDITED BY STANLEY REED

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