Right wing quiet as Nablus is handed to Palestinians

JERUSALEM — The West Bank's largest city, Nablus, was transferred to Palestinian self-rule this week, sparking barely a peep from Israelis.

Before dawn Tuesday, the last Israeli soldiers drove from Nablus past residents' boisterous parties.

Sunday, Palestinian autonomy came to Tulkarm; in mid-November, it was Jenin's turn; before the end of the month, similar withdrawals are scheduled for Kalkilya, Ramallah and Bethlehem.

The pullouts are part of the latest Israeli-Palestinian accord, which extends Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank.

In the Israeli media, the Nablus withdrawal vied for attention with Prime Minister Shimon Peres' Washington visit.

The Nablus pullout occurred a day early, reportedly because of intelligence warnings that terrorists might target departing Israeli troops. Israeli soldiers recently killed a young Palestinian in demonstrations in Nablus.

Palestinians burned and tore Israeli flags as the Israeli army left.

Israeli officials said Israel will not leave other West Bank towns at the same time Palestinian police arrive in order to avoid such incidents.

Hours before the pullout, a group of some 50 yeshiva students and settlers clashed with Israeli forces and tried to gain access to the Tomb of Joseph in Nablus.

Afterward, the army said that Nablus, as well as the tomb, would be closed to Israelis until Monday.

In Israel, all was quiet.

Would-be demonstrators would have found appropriate slogans at their fingertips: By coincidence, this week's Torah portion recounts Jacob's sojourn in Nablus.

A series of terrorist incidents this week — granted, nonfatal ones — failed to elicit a vigorous outcry from that considerable section of the political spectrum that continues to oppose the peace process.

Peres, a consummate politician, is taking advantage of the opposition's current weakness.

The fact that Rabin's confessed assassin Yigal Amir is a religious right-winger repeatedly trumpeting religious right-wing rhetoric has largely silenced that camp.

A backlash against religious Zionists and against the right wing in general has been prominently featured in the media and deepens that inhibition.

As Peres himself noted in a CNN interview from Washington, some Israeli right-wingers now "feel they went too far" in stridently opposing Rabin while he was alive.

The hawkish National Religious Party, in negotiations with Peres' Labor Party, has offered to basically accept Israel's accords with the Palestinians and not to harass the government in the months leading up to next year's general elections.

Within the main opposition Likud Party, there is also a discernible search for a new policy that would not imply any desire — barring a major security crisis — to reoccupy the main West Bank towns now being evacuated by the Israel Defense Force.

Weekend polls still showed Peres trouncing Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu in the race for prime minister, and the Labor Party winning by a lesser margin over Likud.

Rabin's death — and especially the fact that he was killed because of his peace policy — has apparently inspired legions of middle-of-the-road voters to support Peres.

Confirming that shift, former Likud minister David Magen this week declared that "Shimon Peres, not Bibi [Netanyahu], will be the next prime minister."

Peres is not content to enjoy the favorable tide and let this election year go by without further drama.

His determination to strike a deal with Syrian President Hafez Assad — which he underscored during his visit to Washington — will test Magen's prognosis and the depth of the change in Israeli public opinion.

Golan Heights settlers, unlike those on the West Bank, have given notice that they do not intend to remain on the defensive.

With the 30-day mourning period for Rabin over — and with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher arriving in the region for a peace shuttle between Damascus and Jerusalem — they are likely to protest any Golan withdrawal.

Since the West Bank, filled with Palestinians, and the largely empty and strategically important Golan are not linked, one can favor a Palestinian state in the West Bank yet still oppose a withdrawal from the Golan.

But clearly Peres is counting on the political and psychological momentum generated inside Israel and throughout the world by the assassination of Rabin to support his energetic new drive on the Syrian track.