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Begin tries to quell Palestinian protest on West Bank

The question for Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin is: Can he keep the lid on Palestinian protest on the West Bank and Gaza as he moves relentlessly to annex those territories?

So far, Mr. Begin has managed - usually with US support or acquiescence - to contain the more vehement international reactions to his toughening West Bank policies. As a result, Israel has been able to ignore initiatives launched against it in the United Nations.

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Mr. Begin also seems confident that Israel can deal effectively with any military moves directed against it by Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) guerrillas or by the Syrians from Lebanon.

On the domestic political front within Israel, critical voices have been raised about the long-term consequences of Mr. Begin's hard-line on the Palestinian issue. The questioning comes from such responsible members of the parliamentary opposition as former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and former UN ambassador and West Bank military governor Chaim Herzog.

Mr. Rabin told the Jerusalem Post last month: ''It is impossible to solve the Palestinian problem by military means.''

Writing in the same newspaper, Mr. Herzog said: ''Any departure from a liberal policy (toward the Palestinians under Israeli rule)--subject to the basic security requirements of the country--must create a policy of force. And a policy of force cannot be a lasting policy. . . . 'Shooting from the hip' cannot be classified as a policy. There must surely be an alternative.''

There is little indication, however, that these views command broad Israeli support. Shaken by Israel's total withdrawal from Sinai and feeling more isolated than ever in the world, most Israelis tend to back Mr. Begin's defiant, tough line.

But what happens if the mounting Israeli crackdown on Palestinians in the occupied territories produces an explosion there of unprecedented proportions?

There are increasing signs that young Palestinians are more ready than before to risk their lives before Israeli bullets.

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The number of Palestinian protesters killed since mid-March has now risen to 15 (according to Arab sources). It was in mid-March that Israel sparked a new wave of protest by dismissing three West Bank mayors said to be responsive to PLO orders.

The initial wave of violent protest flagged after a couple of weeks. But it has mounted again, first with an Israeli soldier running amok and killing Arabs at the holiest Muslim site in Jerusalem, and then with a toughening of Israeli West Bank policy in the wake of the return of Sinai to Egypt.

Israel marked its 34th anniversary as a nation last week by opening six new Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank and by an announcement from Mr. Begin that a law would be passed making illegal the dismantling of any settlements as part of a peace process involving the West Bank, Gaza, or the Golan Heights.

But on May 2, the Israeli Cabinet softened this announcement by deciding not to bring forward in parliament - at least for the time being--legislation proposed by Mr. Begin.

In negotiating peace with Egypt, Israel agreed to return all Sinai and to dismantle all settlements in the territory before doing so. That part of Camp David was completed April 25--to the accompaniment of violent protest from Jewish extremist settlers.

In promising last week legislation to prevent a repetition of this (on paper at least), Mr. Begin was seeking to reassure public opinion. But many within and without Israel interpreted his announcement as meaning there would be no more treaties with Israel's neighbors (other than Egypt)--Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon--on the basis of exchanging territory for peace.

This brings back the question of whether Mr. Begin is interested in peace treaties with those neighbors except on his terms. That would probably mean Israel's retaining all the occupied territories it continues to hold and continuing indefintely without peace treaties, except for the one already negotiated and implemented with Egypt.

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