Barak cancels proposed hand-over of town in West Bank

 

For a few hours yesterday the 8,500 Arab inhabitants of Anata, in the gentle hills of the West Bank east of Jerusalem, believed that an end to 33 years of Israeli occupation was imminent.

Israeli newspapers reported that the town, along with two others, Beituniya and Ubeidiya, was to be included in the next 6.1 per cent portion of the West Bank being handed over to the control of Mr Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority within days.

Leaders of the West Bank Jewish settlers immediately organised a protest trip to Anata, attracting not only Jerusalem's hardline Likud mayor, Mr Ehud Olmert, but also Mr Natan Sharansky, the Minister of the Interior in Mr Ehud Barak's wouldbe moderate coalition government.

Protected by a substantial contingent of security personnel, Mr Sharansky declared his opposition to the relinquishing of Anata, and Mr Olmert said he feared it would presage the re-dividing of Jerusalem. An Israeli pull-out here, said the mayor, "is a security risk . . . It's dangerous to Jerusalem."

Scarcely had the group returned from its visit, however, than Mr Barak was announcing that Anata would not, after all, be coming under Mr Arafat's rule in the near future. And Jerusalem, he declared from the Knesset podium, would never again be divided.

The government's U-turn over Anata - and U-turn it was, since the media reports were based on leaks from inside the cabinet, where a vote on the 6.1 per cent hand-over is expected today - underlines the delicacy of Mr Barak's current peace-making position, and the weakness of Mr Arafat's.

Mr Barak last week persuaded Mr Arafat to return to the negotiating table, after a break of several weeks, with the promise that there would be Israeli withdrawal from occupied land on the edge of Jerusalem.

But as Mr Sharansky and, later, another minister, Mr Eli Yishai of Shas, illustrated by coming to Anata yesterday, not all of the Prime Minister's coalition partners are prepared to sanction the hand-over of such land.

Mr Arafat, meanwhile, has little choice but to take whatever it is that Mr Barak can give him, or walk out of the talks again and get nothing.

"We hope he [Mr Barak] will implement what he is saying about Anata," said Mr Faisal Husseini, Mr Arafat's Jerusalem affairs expert, rather forlornly yesterday.

Mr Barak is well aware of the widespread Israeli public opposition to Palestinian sovereignty inside Jerusalem. What he is discovering now, however, is the depth of opposition within his coalition to full Palestinian control even in areas bordering the city, such as Anata, where Mr Arafat already has partial rule.

Opposition politicians are now preparing legislation that would complicate any territorial compromise in the Jerusalem area. Having failed to block the inaugural reading last week of similar legislation relating to the Golan Heights, Mr Barak must now be watching Mr Sharansky, Mr Yishai and other coalition hard-liners warily, fearing that they will vote with the opposition to tie his hands on Jerusalem as well.