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West Bank doesn't buy Sharon plan for Arab 'administrators'

West Bank Arabs are responding coolly to the latest Israeli plan to separate military and civilian rule in the occupied territories. Under the plan, proposed by Israeli Defense Minister Gen. Ariel Sharon, the unorthodox strong man of the Israeli Cabinet, military and security affairs would remain under Israeli Army command.

But civilian affairs would be handed over to a civilian administration directly responsible to the Israeli defense minister.

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The coolness with which the Sharon plan has been received on the West Bank underscores Israel's failures to draw Palestinians into the peace process.

Both Egypt and Israel, which resumed talks this week on Palestinian autonomy as called for by the Camp David peace accords, realize that for the talks to resume there must be some Palestinian input. So far well-known West Bank and Gaza leaders have refused to take part, deferring to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

Israelis are hoping that the Sharon plan's call for replacing a military government by a civilian administration will correct this by attracting Palestinians to join negotiations on autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza.

But even if Palestinians accept senior posts in the civilian administration proposed by Sharon, they might not be willing to run for the autonomy council, which must be elected. Such councils are a plank in the Camp David accords. The only previous West Bank elections under Israeli occupation returned pro-PLO municipal officials to office.

Israeli is hoping alternatives to pro-PLO urban leaders will emerge from a series of rural village unions it has encouraged and funded on the West Bank.

Yet the head of the largest of these unions, Mustafa Dudin of Hebron, is the only West Bank leader so far to openly endorse the Sharon plan, saying it "can do much to ease the problems of daily life."

Some West Bankers had hoped that General Sharon would allow two exiled West Bank mayors -- Fahd Kawasmeh of Hebron and Muhammad Milhem of Halhul -- to return home under his liberalization campaign. But General Sharon seems committed for now to playing down the mostly pro-PLO mayors; he has indicated he won't let the two man back.

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"The government's policy toward collaborators with the PLO is clear," General Sharon said recently.

Apart from apparent Palestinian unwillingness to participate, the concept of Palestinian autonomy is open to differing interpretations by the Egyptians and the Israelis.

Israel envisions Palestinian autonomy councils as small administrative bodies corresponding to departments in the territories. Thus, if Palestinian technocrats can be encouraged to take senior posts in the new civilian administration, they might provide the nucleus for Israel's version of the council.

But since the Israelis view autonomy as limited Palestinian administrative control of their local affairs this rules out any ultimate Arab sovereignty.

Egypt sees autonomy as a transition to full Palestinian self-determination with Palestinians given legislative, executive, and judicial powers in the meantime.

Some of the West Bank and Gaza leaders so far opposed to Israeli efforts to involve them in the peace process say they would be more interested if the Israelis were more forthcoming about Palestinian self-determination. This unlikely at this point.

Both Egypt and Israel appear to be banking, at least in public, on General Sharon's reorganization plan and his announced guidelines to reduce tensions on the West Bank to produce a new Palestinian response.

The top administrator's has been offered to Prof Menahem Milson, a former adviser to the military government, who believes that Israel can do more to encourage moderate, non-PLO leadership in the territories.

Many aspects of the plan are already in place. At present, military governors in the West Bank and Gaza each preside over a military and a civilian branch. But within the civilian branches, whose subdivisions correspond roughly to Israeli ministries, virtually all the work is done by Palestinians. They are supervised by a few score Israeli civilians from the corresponding ministries.

Palestinians already hold senior administrative posts -- except for sensitive ministries -- and make key decisions subject to Israeli scrutiny. Several years ago the Israelis tried to elevate some Palestinian civilian bureau heads on the West Bank to director-general status. But the candidates withdrew after anonymous threats to their lives.

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