News Analysis: Despite recent attacks, Netanyahu and Palestinians inch toward pact

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has grown too soft on the Palestinians — at least in the view of some of his ministers.

Hard-line members of the Israeli cabinet are worried that Netanyahu is moving toward closing a deal with the Palestinian Authority that will transfer more West Bank land to Palestinian control, despite recent terror attacks.

At Sunday's weekly cabinet meeting, a debate raged over how to respond to last week's terrorist bombing in Tel Aviv and to the recent murders of three Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

Ariel Sharon, the hard-line infrastructure minister, called for imposing a closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a tactic frequently employed by Israel after previous terrorist attacks.

"It is unacceptable that 100,000 Palestinians will continue working in Israel after such acts. Israelis are murdered, and the Palestinian Authority goes on with business as usual. This must be stopped," Sharon said.

Transportation Minister Shaul Yahalom of the National Religious Party also sought tough action, calling for a complete suspension of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations until Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat cracks down on terrorists.

"Arafat has urged his people to burn the floor underneath the settlers," Yahalom said. "Our reaction must be unequivocal."

In the past, the bombing and murders would likely have prompted Netanyahu to suspend negotiations.

But on Sunday, Netanyahu responded to the ministers' complaints with some unusually positive words about the self-rule government.

Contrary to the situation in the past, he said, there is now no evidence of cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas militants. Netanyahu specifically stated that no intelligence information exists linking the Palestinian Authority with the Tel Aviv bombing.

The prime minister was responding to Yahalom's call to freeze talks with the Palestinians because of the recent spate of terrorism.

Arafat himself could not have hoped for kinder words from Netanyahu.

In view of recent Israeli-Palestinian tensions — provoked in no small measure by the nearly 18-month stalemate in the negotiations — Israeli political observers interpreted Netanyahu's comments as an attempt to keep the talks afloat.

And indeed, in a sign that the talks may soon move off life support, President Clinton on Wednesday called both Arafat and Netanyahu from Moscow. Taking time out of his summit with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Clinton held a 25-minute conversation with Netanyahu and a 15-minute talk with Arafat to express his disappointment that no agreement has been reached. Clinton also indicated his readiness to up his involvement in the process.

A senior U.S. government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to describe the conversations, but said, "The'yre as close [to agreement] as they've ever been."

Netanyahu, speaking later on Israel Television, remarked that Clinton said that "immediately upon his return from Russia, he intends to begin aiding the political process with the Palestinians. He said he intends to work together with me to reach an agreement that answers the needs of both sides."

Without doubt, given recent events, the premier could have found ample reason to take a more pessimistic stance.

In the beginning of August, two settlers — Harel Ben-Nun, 18, and Shlomo Liebman, 24 — were shot dead while on a nighttime security patrol of Yizhar, a settlement of some 55 families near the West Bank town of Nablus.

On Aug. 20, Rabbi Shlomo Ra'anan was stabbed to death in his trailer home in the Hebron area by a suspected Palestinian intruder.

And then on Aug. 27, a bomb exploded on a busy street during Tel Aviv's morning rush hour. The attack left 21 people injured.

Just the same, the recently resumed negotiations on a further Israeli redeployment from the West Bank continue — although at a sluggish pace.

By most indications, there has been little progress. Netanyahu's special envoy to the talks, Yitzhak Molcho, has met several times in recent days with Palestinian officials, including Arafat.

Following a meeting with Molcho, Arafat sent Netanyahu a letter in which he agreed to an Israeli proposal that part of the lands included in a U.S.-sponsored proposal for a 13 percent redeployment in the West Bank be considered a nature preserve. That would prevent the Palestinians from launching any construction projects in the area, which is about 3 percent of the proposed pullback.

But in his letter, Arafat rejected most of the Israeli conditions for bringing the talks to a successful conclusion.

A major stumbling block centers on who will oversee security in the preserve. Israel is demanding total security control. Arafat wants to share those responsibilities.

There are other points of contention:

*The Palestinian National Covenant. Netanyahu denied reports that he has relaxed his demand that the full Palestine National Council be convened to revoke the anti-Israel clauses in the Palestinian charter. However, Arafat maintains that the smaller Central Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization can do the job just as well.

*Israel wants the Palestinian Authority to transfer terror suspects to the Jewish state. The Palestinians want to try such suspects themselves.

*Israel insists that it will redeploy from additional parts of the West Bank only after the Palestinians fulfill their security commitments toward Israel. The Palestinians want such moves to take place simultaneously.

The two sides are acting as though they have all the time in the world. According to some Israeli officials, the premier has a reason for not wanting to rush.

A power struggle is taking place in the Palestinian camp, and Netanyahu apparently is waiting to see who emerges victorious.

Ahmed Karia, the speaker of the Palestinian legislative council who recently held talks with Molcho, is pushing for a moderate line. Meanwhile, the two officials who have steered the Palestinian negotiating team in recent months — Saeb Erekat and Arafat's second-in-command, Mahmoud Abbas — feel that they are being co-opted by Karia.

It's questionable whether Arafat can even fulfill an agreement. He suffers, too, from growing difficulties on the home front.

For instance, Arafat walks a delicate tightrope with Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, whose ability to rally the masses remains strong.

Indeed, last week's bombing in Tel Aviv came one day after Yassin called for attacks on Israel to retaliate for the recent U.S. missile strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan.

Some optimistic observers believe that the tactics currently adopted by both sides are but part of a prelude for a soon-to-be-concluded agreement. They believe that the two sides will sign an agreement Sept. 13 — the fifth anniversary of the signing of the first Oslo accord on the White House lawn.

But given the pace of negotiations — and the acts of violence accompanying them — the pessimists are not about to abandon their positions anytime soon.