Peace process and settler demonstrations intensifying

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JERUSALEM — It was no coincidence that Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were intensifying their efforts to reach a new accord this week as Israeli right-wing activists stepped up their campaign of civil disobedience.

Both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian talks are acutely aware that the longer it takes to reach an agreement, the longer Jewish settlers and their supporters have to thwart it.

While demonstrators have been engaging in high-profile protests against the peace process, there is no clear consensus among Israelis on the peace process or the actions of the settlers.

Palestinian opposition, too, has more opportunity to disrupt the process the longer it takes to extend Palestinian self-rule.

And if Palestinian terrorism flares during this uncertain time, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's government will be badly shaken.

Awareness of this precarious period cast a shadow over the Peres-Arafat meetings all week in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba.

"We, too, have our opposition," Arafat spokesman Marwan Kanafani said during a break in the talks. "Some of our people, too, even within the Palestinian Authority, are dissatisfied with the way the peace process is going."

But Kanafani said violent opposition to the self-rule accord among Palestinian fundamentalists in the Gaza Strip and West Bank has largely been quelled by Palestinian security forces. He said Israeli authorities should adopt a similar course if and when Israeli opposition turns violent.

Kanafani said the key area of discord in the ongoing negotiations is the issue of security — a point later confirmed by Peres himself.

Nonetheless, after meeting with Arafat for five hours Monday, Peres told the Cabinet that "some progress" had been made.

The Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported that the two sides have set Sept. 13 as a new target date for completing their negotiations.

Earlier this week, Peres said that even though differences remain between the two sides, the main body of the agreement is written. But Israel and the Palestinians have already missed summer deadlines for concluding the second-phase agreement.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators meeting in Eilat have already reached broad agreement for an Israeli army withdrawal from six Palestinian population centers in the West Bank prior to the holding of Palestinian elections.

Israel balked, however, at withdrawing its troops before the elections from West Bank Arab villages near Jewish settlements.

Peres told Cabinet ministers that he and Arafat agreed this second phase of an Israel Defense Force pullback from the villages would take place in 18 months after Palestinian elections.

But disputes remain:

*Water rights: Palestinians are demanding control over subterranean water sources in the West Bank now. Israel wants this issue deferred until next year's "permanent status" talks.

*Election procedures: Israel insists that any granting of voting rights to Palestinians in eastern Jerusalem not have any effect on its claims to full sovereignty over the city. The two sides are also deadlocked over the size of the Palestinian Council to be elected.

A highly placed Palestinian official told Israeli reporters these disputes would require a meeting between Arafat and Rabin, "since we know that Rabin calls the shots in Israel, not Peres."

As the Israeli-Palestinian talks intensified, Rabin was forced to confront escalating public unrest among Israelis concerned about the talks' outcome.

Rabin met with settler leaders late last week and secured a three-day Tisha B'Av "cease-fire" in the four days of often stormy demonstrations the settlers launched last week on West Bank hilltops to protest any handover of West Bank lands to the Palestinians.

But on Sunday night, after the truce ended, settlers and their supporters took over two more hilltops in the Jerusalem area — and Israeli troops stopped their demonstrations the next day.

The depth of support for settlers was directly tested when the settlers group Zo Artzeinu, or "This is Our Land," called for mass civil disobedience in Israel on Tuesday.

The protests were not as large as organizers hoped, but thousands of demonstrators did meet at major thoroughfares and disrupt traffic throughout the country.

Later, settler leaders emerged from another meeting with Rabin, disappointed and angry that the prime minister had rejected their demands for a national referendum before implementing the next phase of the self-rule agreement.

They vowed they would not meet with Rabin again and said the failed encounter was reason enough for them to continue their campaign of civil disobedience.

Tiny groups of settlers then defiantly set up five or six new settlements in the West Bank Tuesday.

The extent of support for such acts, though difficult to gauge at this point, is a key factor in the unfolding political drama.

Polls last week on Israeli attitudes toward the settlers' campaign of civil disobedience varied.

A poll by the Israeli daily Ma'ariv showed that 54 percent of 500 respondents opposed the actions taken last week by Israeli security forces when forcibly removing the settlers from the West Bank hilltops.

But a survey in Yediot Achronot said 75 percent of 501 respondents opposed last week's protests.

And this week, Ha'aretz released another poll indicating that 54.4 percent of the public supports the peace process.

Rabbi Benny Elon, a leader of Zo Artzeinu, said this week that the campaign depended on the staying power of the activists and their supporters.

For its part, the government is walking a fine line. Although pledging to crack down on the civil disobedience, too much force could be counterproductive for the government's own cause.