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Israeli peace talks sure to trigger high emotion

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(Editor's note: Tech News Editor Reuven M. Lerner is studying at the Technion in Haifa, Israel, this spring. The following is the fourth in an occasional series of reports.)

By Reuven M. Lerner

HAIFA, Israel -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III mentioned at a press conference earlier this week that it is much easier to obstruct the peace process than it is to help it along.

Here, where Baker's three Middle Eastern tours since the end of the gulf war have been watched very closely, people agree with this general sentiment -- although they rarely agree on anything else, including just who is facilitating the peace process, and who is inhibiting it.

The peace process has been the focus of most of the Israeli news media for the last few weeks. Television and radio newscasts have followed Baker around the Middle East, reporting on his progress with the leaders of various Arab states.

Newspapers have also reported on Baker's progress, including editorials ranging from complete criticism to absolute endorsement of his proposals.

The right-wing ruling coalition has found itself unsure of just what policy to pursue. On the one hand, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has said that he would be willing to meet with an independent Palestinian contingent (as well as representatives from Arab states) at a regional conference, after which Israel would negotiate with each of these groups independently.

But just a few days ago, the Tehiyah party, which is a member of the ruling coalition, threatened to leave the government if Israel were to meet with Palestinians who were not part of a joint Palestinian and Jordanian coalition. (The Jordanian government has made it clear that they would be willing to participate in such a coalition arrangement, but only if the Palestinians request it.)

Given that the Likud-led government does not have a large majority in Knesset, one or more parties leaving the

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coalition might mean the end of the current administration.

On the other hand, if Shamir does not pursue any coherent peace policy, Likud might lose votes in the next election to some of the more left-wing parties, which have generally supported the Baker initiative, or even to some of the right-wing parties.

The left, which was embarrassed by the Palestine Liberation Organization's support for Iraq during the Persian Gulf war, has regained its place as the outspoken critic of the government's policies. They have criticized Shamir for his reluctance to negotiate over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and for the recent buildup of settlements in the West Bank.

The issue of settlements has been in the news a great deal lately, with two construction sites being publicly erected in Samaria, the northern part of the West Bank.

Physically, each settlement is little more than several trailer homes with a road leading up to them. However, the impact of the settlements is not meant to be physical; it is meant to be ideological.

And ideological it is, on both sides: Just as the settlers feel proud to be moving back to an area that was Jewish long ago, the Palestinians feel angry and helpless to stop what they see as Jews stealing their land.

Revava, which was established just before Baker's trip here last week, provides a good example of the political fallout that can come from just one of these settlements.

Newspapers reported the presence of bulldozers and other construction-related vehicles at Revava last week. Soon, everyone was accusing everyone else of anything they could think of: Left-wing activists, including some who chained themselves to the equipment so it could not be used and sabotaged the machinery, accused the settlers of hurting the peace process; the settlers in return accused the activists of stopping a Jewish settlement that would only help Israel's cause, and used the sabotage as an excuse to hurry up the construction work.

Housing Minister Ariel Sharon said that the construction of Revava was done with the full cooperation and knowledge of the prime minister's office. Shamir seemed to indicate otherwise. Earlier this week, a member of Knesset repeated Sharon's claim, adding that the prime minister himself approved the construction of Revava.

As if that was not enough, a Palestinian accused the settlers of taking his land. Members of Peace Now reported that there were very few families living in Revava. Right-wing coalition members said that the settlement activities must continue, and warned Shamir not to freeze such activity as part of a peace negotiation.

The situation threatened to repeat itself just a few days ago, when another settlement -- Talmon Keva -- appeared on the landscape. Settlers living there claimed that Talmon Keva was the permanent home of Talmon, a nearby settlement that has existed since 1989, and that the two were one and the same. (Left-wing groups pointed to the large valley between the two sites, as well as the 15-minute drive between them, as proof that they were not quite as close as the settlers had implied.)

At one point, Peace Now activists and settlers got into a fistfight, injuring a protester, two cameramen and a soldier.

Baker is thus entering into a political mine field, and no matter where he steps, someone is sure to blow up.

But as politically inclined as the Israeli public usually is, there have so far been very few demonstrations dealing with the peace process, new settlements, or otherwise. A protest called by Peace Now earlier this week was advertised heavily, but was not large enough to be reported in the next day's newspapers.

Protesters have been spending time on other issues, such as the plight of newly immigrated Soviet doctors, the flaws with the current system of government, and the severe water rationing that the government will begin in the near future.

If the peace process gets going -- and there are many who think that it will not -- people will begin to protest, loudly and clearly. And since the political stakes are much higher when voters have entered the picture, it is safe to assume that things have not even begun to get interesting.