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Palestinians, Israelis Losing Enthusiasm for Peace Accord

By Barton Gellman
The Washington Post
JERUSALEM

When Sufian Abu Zaiydeh phoned from Gaza City last week, the Palestinian's voice was full of dread. Dedi Zucker, senior Israeli legislator who took his call, felt much the same way.

For a year and a half, since a limited self-rule accord was signed by Israel and the Palestinians on the White House lawn, the two men had reassured each other through every setback. The reconciliation of their peoples, they said, had gone too far to be reversed.

Now, after yet another massacre, they were no longer sure. The aftermath of the Beit Lid suicide bombing - which killed 19 young Israelis on the spot and two more in lingering deaths during the week - exposed a black mood in both their peoples. The two politicians, Abu Zaiydeh said afterward, suddenly felt it possible that their historic experiment in peacemaking might fail.

There are fewer and fewer optimists in Israel and the occupied territories. For the first time, according to several polls, clear majorities on both sides favor a halt to negotiations. Their leaders, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, remain committed to the embrace on which they have staked their grip on power, but both are battered by rejectionists and open rebellion among their colleagues.

Arafat and Rabin have been unable to deliver on the fundamentals of their deal - a halt to political violence in exchange for an end to occupation. Instead, as Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin said in an interview, they are caught between "terrorist activities on the one hand and on the other hand (Jewish) settlers who every day put another (mobile home) on another hill" in occupied lands they have no intention of leaving.

One barometer of Palestinian sentiment, which stunned and sickened Israeli Jews, was the celebration of Beit Lid's carnage by thousands of Gazans. Israeli television juxtaposed the happy crowds with wrenching footage of funerals.

In the occupied West Bank, a survey two days after the attack found that 57 percent of 787 West Bank Palestinians questioned said they approved of the suicide bombing; 32 percent said they did not. In similar numbers, they said they would like to see more such "military actions" inside Israel.

Nabil Kukali of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion in Beit Sahour, who conducted the poll, said those numbers almost reversed results he obtained five months ago, when 54 percent supported the pursuit of peace by negotiation and 37 percent did not. "Now people don't see that the agreement with the Israelis gives them anything," he said. "They have lost everything."

Another Palestinian pollster, Khalil Shikaki of the Center for Palestinian Research and Studies in Nablus, said the radical Islamic groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad have increased popularity with each attack and command the loyalty of many who do not see themselves as religious.

In Arafat's rhetoric, it is sometimes hard to tell whether he employs the images of war in service of peace or in their original meaning. Early in January he told a cheering crowd: "For a hundred years we have been at war. Wars in all spheres - political, military, wars of history and culture, wars of perseverance and survival. Bless your struggle and your jihad on this land!"

It is the support for the killers, perhaps more than the killing itself, that has turned many influential Israelis against Palestinian self-rule. On the day of the bombing President Ezer Weizman called for a halt in the talks. Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, one of the country's two chief rabbis and not previously on record against the talks, told a candlelight vigil at Beit Lid that "peace is not on the horizon."

Rabin's Labor-led coalition government notes that it has not established new settlements, expropriated more land for old ones, or used large sums of government money to subsidize settlers.

But the government does support continued settlement in the broad swath of the West Bank nearest Jerusalem and is "thickening" settlements there to consolidate Israel's hold. Last week, the cabinet approved construction or sale of more than 4,000 apartments in what Israeli officials call "Greater Jerusalem." The new housing will permit an increase in the West Bank's Jewish population of about 15 percent.

The settlers are hardly idle. Contending the biblical Land of Israel includes all of the occupied lands, they are expanding fence lines and building homes with what seem to be extensive private funds.