In an effort to break the stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the future of the West Bank, a leftist Israeli group on Monday proposed dismantling 27 Jewish settlements there in a move it said would give the PLO control of two-thirds of the territory and more than 90% of the Arab population.
Meeting with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the Peace Now movement urged Israel to remove the small, scattered settlements, which have a total population of 7,000, as a way to begin Israel's military pullback in the region and launch Palestinian elections.
Tsali Reshef, a Peace Now leader, argued that such a move would restore momentum to Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and bolster the position of Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, thus enabling him to take tougher action against radical Islamic opponents of the agreement on Palestinian self-government.
"If Israel doesn't take some steps to assure the Palestinians that it is giving them back land, it will be very difficult for Arafat to deal with the serious opposition to the peace process and for us all to move forward to the next stage," Reshef said. "We think this (proposal) serves Israel's interest. It's a way to clarify we really mean business, and as such it will change the whole atmosphere. Arafat has lost much of the support he had because Palestinians feel Israel will not carry out the agreement it made. This is the way to change that."
The Peace Now plan--the latest, most concrete proposal for implementing the Israeli-Palestinian agreement on self-government in the West Bank--was intended, Reshef said, to "show there is a policy that a courageous government could adopt to restore momentum to the peace process."
But Rabin told the group that Israeli security is his primary concern and that he must be convinced that Arafat is doing all within his power to combat terrorism before Israel proceeds with Palestinian autonomy, according to a government spokesman.
Rabin also reiterated his pledge, made when Israel signed the basic agreement on autonomy with the PLO in September, 1993, that the 144 Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip can remain through the initial five years of Palestinian self-rule in the regions.
In that agreement, Israel pledged to withdraw its forces from West Bank towns and villages so the Palestinian Authority can hold elections--crucial moves that could restore popular support for the peace agreement and greatly enhance the legitimacy of Arafat's government.
After a series of terrorist attacks within Israel itself, Rabin tied further progress toward those goals to a crackdown by Arafat on militant Muslim groups in the Gaza Strip and subsequently in the West Bank.
"We accept the need for tougher measures by Arafat, but we think Israel should strengthen his ability to take them," Reshef said.
Israel, meanwhile, on Monday expelled a senior PLO security officer to Jordan for alleged involvement in attacks on Israelis before the 1993 autonomy agreement and in recent killings of Palestinians suspected of working with Israeli security police.
Mohammed Jamil Issawi, a former member of Arafat's elite Force 17 unit, was arrested Jan. 16 on suspicion of entering the Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip under a false name, Israeli officials said. On Monday, security police drove him to the Allenby Bridge and made him cross from the West Bank into Jordan.