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Middle East turmoil An ominous October: Israel, Palestinian Authority need U.S.-inspired flexibility.

ISRAEL'S PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu needs to ponder the implications of his efforts to rewrite the Oslo peace accords signed by his predecessors, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. For if any government takes it upon itself to renege on past solemn commitments, how can it hope that other nations will be willing henceforth to negotiate in good faith?

Mr. Netanyahu's greater obligation is, of course, the safety and security of his people. If he believes the agreements should be formally renounced, he should say so -- and do it. Instead, he declares his allegiance to the Oslo accords and then demands "adjustments" or takes actions that are inflammatory to the Palestinians and detrimental to the authority of their leader, Yasser Arafat. Which is not to say that plenty of fault does not lie on the Arab side.

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Impatience with the new prime minister is not confined to outside powers. Israel's President Ezer Weizman, a symbolic figure who stands above the domestic squabbles between Mr. Netanyahu's Likud Party and Mr. Peres' Labor Party, took it upon himself this week to welcome Mr. Arafat to a photo-op luncheon complete with an effusion of peace talk.

In an apparent rebuke to Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Weizman said "we must put something on the table." But what his prime minister has put on the table -- a revision of the Oslo formula for handling the explosive situation in Hebron, where 450 Israeli settlers assert their Biblical rights in the midst of 100,000 Palestinians -- is unacceptable to Mr. Arafat.

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The task for U.S. mediator Dennis Ross, therefore, is to find find "bridges" between the two sides -- a not impossible task since both have good reason to be chastened by missteps potentially devastating to both.

Danger threatens from many directions. Syria's President Hafez Assad has moved elite troops to positions menacing the Golan Heights. Jordan's King Hussein warns that "the psychological DTC moment when people begin to lose hope is close by." Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak proved prescient in boycotting a no-concessions Washington summit. And Mr. Arafat's "order" to Palestinian police not to fire on Israeli troops might not hold if the violence of a fortnight ago is repeated.

For a Middle East with vivid memories of a wartime October 23 years ago, the situation is ominous. It calls for extraordinary flexibility on the part of Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Arafat and dogged diplomacy by a Clinton administration that should try to block out the background noise of the American presidential election.

Pub Date: 10/10/96


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