News Analysis: Political tensions escalating in wake of Israeli-PLO accord

JERUSALEM — Ominous talk of a "rift in the nation" and even "civil war" is becoming commonplace as political tensions reach a new high here.

The escalating tensions were sparked by the preliminary pact signed last week by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat for extending Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank.

Although the agreement was approved this week by both the Israeli Cabinet and the PLO Executive Committee, there was opposition in both bodies.

The agreement also created tensions between the political and military establishments over some of the details of the interim agreement on self-rule.

Meanwhile, across the scrub-covered hillsides of the West Bank, Jewish settlers are continuing to create symbolic settlements to demonstrate their opposition to ceding land to the Palestinians.

In at least one case this week, the confrontations turned deadly, when settlers opened fire on a group of Palestinian protesters.

Four settlers were arrested in connection with the shooting near the Jewish settlement of Beit El.

The deepening controversy surrounding the ongoing negotiations with the Palestinians is also threatening Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's parliamentary majority.

Rabin may have thought he would have some respite from parliamentary squabbles when the Knesset went on summer recess earlier this month.

But the relief was temporary, because the opposition, led by the Likud Party, called the Knesset into special session Tuesday to consider a series of motions attacking the Peres-Arafat accord.

At a stormy session, Rabin rejected opposition demands that he submit last week's Israeli-PLO agreement for Knesset approval. Meanwhile, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resumed discussions in Eilat this week. According to Israeli officials, a final agreement will be hammered out within three weeks. An official signing ceremony is slated to take place in Washington, D.C., on or about Sept. 6.

Rabin pledged to seek the legislators' stamp of approval — a move required by custom, though not by Israeli law — once the negotiations are concluded and the agreement complete.

Rabin's list of troubles involves more than just the settlers, parliamentary opposition and defections from within his own party. His own Cabinet showed some erosion at its weekly meeting Sunday. Equally significant were leaked reports of criticism from within the army.

Energy Minister Gonen Segev opposed the accord outright, later saying the new agreement could lead to an Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders. Two other Cabinet members — recently appointed Interior Minister Ehud Barak and Religious Affairs Minister Shimon Shetreet — abstained.

The Peres-Arafat agreement calls, in part, for an IDF redeployment in the West Bank in three stages by July 1997. But the permanent status talks are scheduled to begin in May 1996 — a situation, Barak warned, that could weaken Israel's bargaining position in future negotiations.

As Rabin squares off against opponents from all sides, the Israeli right-wing is hardly unified.

On Monday, opposition parties in the Knesset met with leaders of Gush Emunim, the Third Way, Professors for Political Strength and other conservative extraparliamentary groups to discuss tactics to oppose the Peres-Arafat accord.

But there have been severe rifts within the Israeli right after the hard-line settler group Zo Artzeinu (This is Our Land) launched a countrywide road-blocking protest last week that stranded evening rush-hour drivers.

Likud Knesset member Ze'ev "Benny" Begin condemned the action outright, while other Likud parliamentarians voiced their own reservations.

Even the Yesha Council, which represents settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, dissociated itself from the roadblocks.

Some of the participants at the Monday meeting of the opposition proposed launching a "siege" of the Knesset and the government complex in Jerusalem — a move designed to paralyze the Rabin government. But this idea was met by strong opposition.

Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu vigorously discouraged such tactics. At Tuesday's Knesset session, he called for a national referendum on the agreement, asserting that Rabin has reneged on all his campaign promises and was not acting in accordance with his election platform. Netanyahu put forward his own proposal, which would grant Palestinians "administrative independence" in the West Bank but leave ultimate authority over the land, water and security in the hands of Israel.