Gaza debut gets mixed reviews

THE VISIT to Gaza by Yasser Arafat has been viewed in Israel with schoolmasterly approval by government, hysterical fury from the hard-right, and general indifference among the majority secular mainstream of the population.

Mr Arafat has been given good marks by the Israeli cabinet. The Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, put him to the top of the Arab class, and even the hawkish Agriculture Minister, Yaakov Tzur, said the PLO chairman's performance has been 'encouraging'.

The high ratings are not given from any heartwarming burst of sudden friendship for the guest on their doorstep. This is not peace South Africa-style. There is no generosity between the Arab and Jewish partners. Mr Arafat is no Nelson Mandela and Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, no F W de Klerk.

Israel chose Mr Arafat as a partner for lack of anyone else to unite the Palestinians, not because the government trusted or believed in him. The two sides have never claimed to work together for their deal. Rather they have squeezed each other for as much as each could get. The distaste with which Mr Rabin shook hands with Mr Arafat nine months ago has not, as far as one can see, been replaced as yet by any respect.

The approval marks have been given, rather, on pragmatic grounds. Mr Arafat has kept his head down during his visit, showing caution, and saying nothing that might offend or anger the government in Jerusalem. He did not, for example, mention the 'right of return' for refugees. Even his comments on Jerusalem were mild.

Despite his moderation, however, the predictable assortment of religious and hardline Likud-supporting rightwingers have taken to the streets condemning 'Arafat the murderer' in blood-curdling terms. On Saturday an estimated 100,000 protesters rallied in Jerusalem and elsewhere, with militants yesterday rampaging through the city and attacking Arab properties in East Jerusalem.

The government has been unmoved by the demonstrations - and rightly so. When Jerusalem is truly on the agenda, Israeli opposition could flare with devastating force.

(Photograph omitted)