Right-wing Israelis still block prospect of Palestinian state


Fifty years ago this weekend, the United Nations called for the establishment of Jewish and Arab states in Palestine. While the State of Israel marked the occasion on Saturday with a lavish reception in Tel Aviv, attended by the ambassadors of the 33 countries which supported the November 29th, 1947, resolution, the still-stateless Palestinians used the anniversary to submit a somewhat forlorn request to the UN to at least grant them full membership status.

While the weekend also saw a series of angry but unproductive demonstrations by Palestinians across the West Bank, a Saturday night rally by right-wing Israelis outside the prime minister's residence appeared to have an immediate impact.

In recent days, the Prime Minister, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu, has been sounding out his ministers about implementing a long overdue Israeli troop withdrawal from two areas of the West Bank. But although the government formally insists that it remains committed to the peace process with the Palestinians, the prospect of a new territorial handover - of what amounts to about 6-8 per cent of the West Bank - generated massive opposition.

Several cabinet members made clear they'd vote against any such withdrawal. Just as they did when the late Yitzhak Rabin was leading the peace process, extremists put up posters of the prime minister in Arab keffiyeh headdress throughout Jerusalem, under the slogan "The Liar."

And on Saturday night, several hundred settlers and their supporters gathered outside Mr Netanyahu's home, urging him to "resist the American pressure" for "concessions" to the Palestinians.

The Israeli cabinet met yesterday and voted to go ahead with the troop withdrawal - but only after Mr Yasser Arafat has honoured all Palestinian obligations under the Oslo peace accords. It was a decision, scoffed Mr Yossi Beilin, of the opposition Labour Party, "to carry out the troop withdrawal on condition we don't carry it out".

Since the cabinet vote gave no timetable for a pull-out, and made no mention of how much land was to be handed over, even Mr Natan Sharansky, the minister of trade, acknowledged that it was "devoid of significance."

Determined not to enable Mr Netanyahu to portray him as being responsible for the peace stalemate, Mr Arafat had his Palestinian Authority issue a statement calling the decision encouraging, albeit while rejecting the attached Israeli conditions. Mr Saeb Arekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, gave a more honest reaction, noting dryly that the Israelis "are continuing to negotiate with themselves."

The Israeli Foreign Minister, David Levy, said last night he hoped more substantive government decisions would be forthcoming in the next week or so. Since it was Mr Netanyahu who drafted the timetable for these troop withdrawals, when he finalised with Mr Arafat the accord on Israel's pull-out from Hebron at the start of this year, he would be breaching his own commitments, rather than those inherited from the last Labour government, if he fails to move forward.

The implications of such an abrogation would be catastrophic not only for Israel's relations with the Palestinians, but also its ties to the United States.