Netanyahu talks as Israel drifts towards war

Hopes to salvage peace process rest on PM's visit to Washington

Israel's right-wing Likud Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, left a deeply troubled nation behind him when he flew to the United States yesterday for separate talks with President Bill Clinton and King Hussein of Jordan designed to salvage the Middle East peace.

Although he was publicly defying international pressure to freeze Jewish settlement in Arab East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, ordinary Israelis feared that his take-it-or-leave-it treatment of the Palestinians was putting the Oslo process in jeopardy. Clashes persisted on the West Bank at the weekend between stone-throwing Arab youths and Israeli soldiers.

"Many Israelis are worried that we are drifting towards war," a leading pollster, Dr Mina Zemach, told The Independent. A Tel-Aviv University survey published last week found 59 per cent of Israelis rating the chances of war "very high" and 74 per cent afraid that they or their families might be killed or maimed by terrorist attacks.

In advance of his American trip, Mr Netanyahu tried to turn the focus on the Palestinian leadership's alleged "green light" for suicide bombings like that which killed three women in a Tel Aviv cafe on 21 March. He has consistently refused to commit Israel to any quid pro quo, though US and European mediators are convinced that he will have to give the Palestinians something. One of the Prime Minister's senior aides, Danny Naveh, said on Saturday that stopping construction on East Jerusalem's Har Homa site was "not on the agenda".

Addressing a Likud audience last Thursday, Mr Netanyahu warned the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, that if he did not rein in the men of violence, Israel would turn to "other, non-diplomatic alternatives". He is reported to have ordered the army to prepare to invade towns now under Palestinian self-rule if the worst comes to the worst.

Uzi Benziman, a columnist in the daily Ha'aretz, predicted yesterday that sending in the troops would be interpreted by the Muslim world as an act of war. "Has Israeli society really decided that this is what it wants?" Mr Benziman asked. "Has it decided to go to war, and pay the price in blood, because of a quarrel with the Palestinian Authority over a new neighbourhood in Jerusalem, or about the scope of the next phase of redeployment?"

The answer, according to Dr Zemach, seems to be no. "Most of the public (about 60 per cent) want the peace process to continue, even though only 30 per cent feel sure that Yasser Arafat really wants peace," the pollster said. "They believe we are strong enough, and they are ready to pay the price."

An unprecedented 43 per cent were prepared to yield part of Jerusalem to Palestinian autonomy, though opinion was evenly divided over Har Homa.

Thousands of Israelis demonstrated against Mr Netanyahu's policies on Saturday in Tel Aviv's Yitzhak Rabin Square. Recalling Mr Netanyahu's promise of "peace with security", the Labour opposition leader, Shimon Peres, told them: "The peace looks weak and security has been undermined."

The Prime Minister is being widely criticised for lurching from crisis to crisis in a doomed quest to keep his Arab partners and his expansionist constituency happy at the same time. He hoped, for instance, to appease the right, disenchanted by the Hebron redeployment in January, by sending the bulldozers on to Har Homa in February.

"He gets up, licks his finger and tests which way the wind is blowing," said Yaron Ezrahi, a Hebrew University political scientist. "The contradiction is inherent in his mandate. He was elected to continue the peace process and to build settlements, but you cannot implement Oslo and Har Homa simultaneously."

Letters, page 18

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