Prime ministers Har Homa strategy backfires badly… as Clinton, other world leaders criticize the

JERUSALEM — The decision to build at Har Homa has brought foreign pressures on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu without giving him the political plaudits he had hoped for at home.

President Clinton, with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat at his side Monday in the Oval Office, criticized Netanyahu's decision as detrimental to the peace process.

At the same time, critics within Netanyahu's Likud Party, while supporting him on Har Homa, have nevertheless continued to attack him for what they view as his soft-line peace policy.

"If I'm worried, everyone should be worried," National Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon — a regular Netanyahu critic — told reporters Monday.

Referring to the first of three redeployments in rural West Bank areas slated to take place in the coming days, Sharon accused Netanyahu of preparing to hand over strategically vital West Bank land to the Palestinians.

On Tuesday, Housing Ministry surveyors were supposed to begin work at Har Homa in southeastern Jerusalem, where a new Jewish neighborhood will be constructed.

But at the last moment, the Prime Minister's Office ordered the surveying to be postponed.

"The reasons are technical and legal," said Netanyahu spokesman Shai Bazak.

Other sources said legal constraints required a 15-day period between formal approval of the project, which came last week at a meeting of the Ministerial Committee on Jerusalem, and the beginning of work.

The delay triggered a welling-up of suspicion among coalition hard-liners that criticism from Clinton and other world leaders would cause Netanyahu to back down, despite last week's unanimous decision by the ministerial committee.

The National Religious Party warned Netanyahu that it would balk at reported plans to cede some 9 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians as the first of three further redeployments called for in the Israeli-Palestinian accords, and recently reaffirmed by the Netanyahu government in the Hebron agreement.

Warnings were also voiced Tuesday by 17 members of the governing coalition, who said they would withhold parliamentary support for the government if Netanyahu turned over any portions of the West Bank now designated as "Area C," lands under full Israeli control.

The 17 Knesset members are also demanding that any further redeployments be tied to the Palestinians' upholding of their signed commitments in the existing Israeli-Palestinian accords.

The Cabinet was scheduled to meet later this week to discuss the extent of the first redeployment, which was originally slated to take place today, but may begin by Sunday, according to some reports.

If Israel indeed cedes 9 percent of the West Bank in the first pullback, this would signify greater generosity on Israel's part than had earlier been intended.

Government officials have said in the past that the extent of the first redeployment would be "symbolic" — that is, not particularly generous.

According to Israeli media reports, Netanyahu has offered the greater amount of land in exchange for an understanding from Arafat that the Har Homa decision would not trigger the massive wave of violence that some Palestinian leaders had threatened.

And indeed, so far at least, Palestinian and Arab outrage has not resulted in any violence on the ground.

Demonstrations at the Har Homa site by neighboring Arab villagers have been small and peaceful, and a one-day strike Monday throughout the self-rule areas took place without violence.

But the relative quiet on the West Bank has not been matched in the diplomatic arena, where the Palestinians have succeeded in stirring up a wave of negative reaction to the Israeli decision.

Along with the recent criticisms from the United States, the U.N. Security Council was slated to take up the issue this week and Arafat himself was expected to attend the session.

French and German foreign ministers visiting Israel this week were expected to voice their countries' disapproval of the decision — as Prime Minister John Major did during President Ezer Weizman's recent state visit to Great Britain.

This issue also was expected to top the agenda of a meeting between Netanyahu and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak scheduled to take place in Cairo this week.

Additionally, the Islamic countries' "Jerusalem Committee," chaired by Morocco's King Hassan, scheduled a session for later this month on Har Homa.

The Palestinians and the wider Arab world regard the project as a deliberate attempt by Israel to cut off the Holy City from its last remaining territorial corridor to the Palestinian territories.

Once the complex of Jewish housing is built at Har Homa, they say, Jerusalem will be enclosed on all sides by Jewish suburbs, thwarting their own aspirations to maintain territorial contiguity with Jerusalem, part of which they want as the capital of an eventual Palestinian state.

The current Israeli government is flatly opposed to an independent Palestinian state.

Criticism of the Har Homa project has not been voiced by all members of Israel's opposition parties. Some members of the Labor Party support the project, which was first formulated in 1991 by the Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir, and had the backing of successive Labor governments. Implementation, however, was postponed by the previous Labor government because of highly charged political sensitivities surrounding the plan.

Support for the project still exists among some Laborites — which made for a stormy session in the party's Knesset caucus Monday, when opposition leader Shimon Peres proposed that Labor abstain in a no-confidence motion on Har Homa that had been introduced by the secular Meretz Party and by Arab Knesset members.

But Peres was defeated, and Labor decided to vote with the leftist factions against the government. Despite the support of most Labor Party members, the no-confidence motion was later defeated in the Knesset.

It was at Sunday's Likud Central Committee meeting that Netanyahu hoped, and indeed planned, to score a major domestic success in the wake of the Har Homa decision.

Orchestrated by the premier's aides, the session — attended by thousands of Likud supporters — was billed as a popular demonstration of support for the premier: for his peace policy, for his decision on Har Homa and for his resolve in the current police investigation into allegations of corruption surrounding the short-lived appointment of Roni Bar-On as attorney general.

Netanyahu was to begin speaking at 8 p.m. — when the hour-long prime-time news airs on both Israeli television channels. He took the podium at that time and did not step down until 9 p.m., thereby ensuring that none of his critics was shown on television.

But this tactic backfired, triggering a wave of anger at the prime minister from within his party.

Even pro-Netanyahu Cabinet members such as Limor Livnat, the Minister of Communications, came out Monday against the way the session had been staged for the greater glory of the party leader.

Livnat also railed against the decision to prevent a speech by former Premier Shamir, who is an outspoken Likud critic of Netanyahu's policies.

The word "Bolshevism" echoed through the Likud this week. Any political gain that Netanyahu had hoped to make from the Har Homa decision and from the follow-up Likud rally appeared to have been outweighed by the increasingly bitter and resentful criticism voiced by his opponents.