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Israel clears one hurdle to Sinai pullout, delays on next

Israel, confronted with two major roadblocks to evacuating the Sinai, has decided to buy it way around one of them and to delay its run on the other as long as possible.

It intends to buy its way around the first with massive compensation payments to Israeli settlers scheduled to be eased out of the Sinai as Egypt reasserts control of the region. The second problem will be goading the hard-line nationalists out of the Sinai - those who have fervent ideological, and not just financial, reasons for staying.

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The Israeli Defense Ministry's decision not to forcefully disperse nationalists who are blocking efforts to dismantle agricultural greenhouses signals that the government wants to avoid physical confrontation with the hard-liners, at least until close to the April 25 date for handing the area over to Egypt.

Defense Minister Ariel Sharon is reported to have told colleagues that it was best to avoid months of running battles with the hard-liners; such battles could polarize the country. Leaders of the opposition Labor Party attacked that decision this week, saying it was a policy of appeasing law-breakers. They suggested Sharon himself is in collusion with the hard-liners.

The compensation payments, approved last week, clearly indicate the government's intention to honor an obligation to return all of Sinai under the Camp David agreements, even at what almost all Israelis consider to be an astronomical price.

It was Prime Minister Menachem Begin who forced the compensation payments upon a reluctant Cabinet, which gave its approval by only a 5-4 vote, with eight members abstaining.

''I will be remembered after my death as the man who prevented civil war in Yamit,'' Begin reportedly told his cabinet colleagues after the vote. (Yamit is the urban center of northeast Sinai.)

Ministers who intended to vote against the payments as exessive finally abstained from voting after what one of them described as ''unprecedented entreaties'' by Begin.

The payments were almost unanimously condemned by editorial writers who accused the government of caving in to ''extortionist'' threats from settlers threatening violent resistence if demands were not met.

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Even many members of the ruling Likud coalition called the payments immoral and said they were a blow to Israel's struggling economy. However, the prime minister's firm pressure seems likely to overcome this resistance and win Knesset approval of the payments. Although some settlers say the compensation figure is too low, it is not likely to be raised.

The nationalists present an entirely different problem. They are a small group of residents of the Yamit region who have rejected evacuation on any terms. They have refused to negotiate for compensation.

Most of nationalists are members of Gush Emunim, a militant Orthodox organization tha links Jewish settlement within the boundaries of ancient Israel with Messianic visions.

Dozens of Gush Emunim families have settled in recent months in homes in the Yamit region evacuated by settlers who have moved back across the former international boundary into Israel proper. These squatters will be joined by hundreds of other families in coming weeks, say nationalist leaders.

The nationalists plan to bring in thousands of supporters - perhaps as many as 100,000 - most of whom will be housed in tents. Some nationalists speak of passive resistance, but others say that weapons will be used.

During the lenghthy compensation negotiations between the government and those Yamit-region settlers willing to accept compensation, the hard-liners retained a neutral presence in the background. With the apparent achievement of a compensation agreement, the nationalists have moved to fill the the breach - the confrontation over the greenhouses being a warning shot across the government's bow.

One nationalist leader from Yamit, Avi Farhan, admitted that he was happy the compensation problem had been resolved. ''Now the real fight can begin,'' he said.

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