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Settlers adjusting to Arab authority But many in right wing still reject dealings with Palestinians

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- Shlomo Katan, a right-wing mayor of a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, drove a quarter-mile this week to visit the neighboring Arab city of Qalqilya for the first time in six years.

He met Qalqilya's mayor. They hugged. They swapped phone numbers. "It was lovely," said Mr. Katan.

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Such gestures -- small as they may seem -- are coming from the Israeli right wing more frequently. A growing number of Jewish settlers are saying they must acknowledge Palestinian authority in the West Bank, which they had fought so ardently against.

"They are living there. We are neighbors," said Mr. Katan, the Likud mayor of Alfe Menashe, a Jewish settlement of 5,000 people 12 miles northeast of Tel Aviv. "I can't pass Qalqilya every day like it's a black hole."

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The continuing handover of West Bank towns to Palestinian control, and the repercussions of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a religious, right-wing Israeli, have combined to bring out a new note of conciliation among the settlers and religious right.

"There's no doubt about it; the pragmatists are speaking," said Ehud Sprinzak, an expert on the Israeli right.

Earlier this month, the editor of the settler newspaper called Nikuda shocked his readers by calling for a dialog [See Israel, with the Palestinian Authority, which the paper had in the past dismissed as "terrorists" and "murderers."

"Reality is changing completely," wrote editor Uri Elitzur. "The withdrawal already took place. The Palestinian Authority is fact. The slower we will absorb the situation, the worse we will live."

Two days later, Rabbi Yoel Ben-Nun, a religious figure at the core of the settlers' movement, publicly mused that the peace plan may indeed be the will of God.

"Every move which we had thought would delay the peace process became a catalyst for it," he wrote in Israel's largest daily paper, Yediot Ahronot. "The conclusion is clear: the peace process is a heavenly decision and cannot be stopped. Either one fits into it, or moves aside."

But there has not been a wholesale conversion to moderation. Many -- perhaps most -- settlers and members of the religious right still vehemently reject any dealings with the Palestinians or recognition of the Palestinian Authority headed by Yasser Arafat.

Mr. Elitzur, the Nikuda editor, was hauled before the settlers' council last week and chastised for his editorial.

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"We are helping Arafat become legitimate. We are helping them purify the reptile," complained settler leader Zev Hever.

"As far as I am concerned, the [Palestinian Authority] is terrorists and war-criminals," said Noam Arnon, a Hebron settler leader.

"Under no circumstances will we cooperate with them in any way."

Even Mayor Katan said his gesture was only neighborly; he would not shake Mr. Arafat's hand, he said.

He made a point of telling the mayor of Qalqilya, Ma'aruf Zaharan, that all the West Bank should be in Israeli hands.

Mayor Zaharan's wife politely suggested he and the other settlers should move to Tel Aviv, the mayor related.

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"On the practical level there is no problem meeting an [Arab mayor] of a neighboring village to discuss garbage, sanitation," said Pinhas Vallerstein, an official of a settler's regional council 11 north of Jerusalem.

"But I definitely oppose contacts with the Palestinian Authority. They are the enemy."

There is a dose of political pragmatism in the settlers' new approach, said Mr. Sprinzak. After the assassination of Mr. Rabin, the Israeli right-wing endured withering criticism for having "set the tone" with its incendiary rhetoric. It is politically wise to appear more conciliatory, he said.

"They don't want to do anything right now to force an early election. There's no question [Prime Minister Shimon] Peres would carry the day," said Mr. Sprinzak. "The pragmatists count numbers."

But "the thoughtful people [among the right wing] realize this is not just a tactical change. It's much more serious," said Shmuel Sandler, an associate professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University.

The settlers and religious activists fear they have lost their influence, he said. In their zeal to lay Biblical claims to the West Bank, the right-wing may be losing its base of support within Israel, he said.

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Resentment against them after the Rabin assassination has led to a new slogan promoting secularism: Israel should be a state of citizens, not a state of religion.

"Some of them have realized they may have to give up part of the 'Land of Israel' in order to save the state of Israel," said Professor Sandler.


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