Right wing mobilises against Netanyahu on accord

 

With ominous signs of history repeating itself, hundreds of rightwing demonstrators gathered outside Mr Benjamin Netanyahu's official residence in Jerusalem last night to denounce the Prime Minister as a traitor for reaching a new peace deal with the Palestinian leader, Mr Yasser Arafat.

"Bibi is a liar," the protesters shouted from behind a thick line of soldiers and policemen. "Bibi is a traitor."

The demonstrators mobilised after Palestinian gunmen earlier yesterday shot a settler outside Kiryat Arba, adjoining Hebron in the West Bank, and left him in the road to die. Israel closed off Hebron, and Israeli and Palestinian security officials mounted a search for the gunmen.

Hours later, an elderly Palestinian man was found murdered outside the West Bank settlement of Itamar; an anonymous caller had telephoned the settlement to describe where the body had been left, and claimed the murder was to avenge the Kiryat Arba killing.

The demonstration outside the Prime Minister's residence was eerily reminiscent of those against Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who was assassinated in 1995 by a right-wing extremist six weeks after agreeing with Mr Arafat on a new withdrawal from occupied West Bank land. But there is one critical difference: the hardline settlers and their supporters protesting this time are the very people who helped vote Mr Netanyahu into office in May 1996, precisely to stop the land handovers to Mr Arafat. Their bitterness in the wake of last weekend's Wye Summit deal, with its provisions for further West Bank withdrawals, is all the deeper for that.

"You are responsible for this shameful agreement," proclaimed a right-wing advertisement published yesterday, under photos of Mr Netanyahu and his Foreign Minister, Ariel Sharon. "We voted for you. . . we won't forget. . . and we won't forgive."

Settler leaders are also openly challenging Mr Netanyahu's claims to have made major negotiating gains in the agreement. A close reading of the text, they point out, makes a mockery of his suggestion that the PLO charter is now to be amended more clearly than before, contains no reference to the purported Palestinian commitment to reduce the size of the police force, and does not automatically provide for the jailing of alleged violent activists.

Mr Netanyahu has yet to present the accord for cabinet approval, because he is still working to boost ministerial support. In the Knesset, he has no such problems, and a no-confidence motion on the issue was defeated last night. But the Knesset Law Committee, chaired by a coalition hardliner, did vote through an early draft of a bill to dissolve the Knesset, which could lead to elections early next year.

In an effort to reduce rightwing anger, Mr Netanyahu is reportedly considering starting building work at Har Homah, on the disputed southern edge of Jerusalem. It was when he sent bulldozers to clear land there early in 1997 that the peace process ground to a halt.

In Ramallah, meanwhile, hundreds of Palestinians also demonstrated yesterday - against Mr Arafat's security forces, who had shot dead a young Palestinian during a protest march on Sunday. The Sunday protest had been organised by Mr Arafat's own Fatah loyalists, who claim that the security forces have been raiding their offices in the city.

The Ramallah violence might be an early illustration of the anger within sections of the Palestinian populace that generally back Mr Arafat at some of the commitments he has now made to Mr Netanyahu. In similar vein, Palestinian journalists have protested at efforts by the security forces to prevent them covering Hamas's angry reaction to the new deal. When Hamas's leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, at the weekend threatened more violence, several Palestinian journalists were detained for reporting his remarks; presumably, Mr Arafat was attempting to comply with a clause in the new deal that requires him to prevent anti-Israeli incitement.

Reuters adds from Washington: The White House yesterday offered no guarantee that Jonathan Pollard, a confessed spy for Israel, would be freed from prison after the government carries out a review of whether he should be granted clemency.

Mr Netanyahu created a last-minute snag in Maryland by demanding freedom for the former US naval intelligence analyst.