LESS than a week after receiving Cabinet approval, an Israeli plan for elections in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip is under attack on two fronts. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has run into strong conservative opposition within his own Likud bloc, and is trying to advance the principle of elections without being pinned down on specifics that could provoke a political crisis. One Likud minister has already called on Mr. Shamir to resign.
The prime minister's plan is also opposed by Palestinians, who insist that it must be linked to Israeli acceptance of an eventual Palestinian state. Buoyed by their 17-month uprising against Israeli occupation, Palestinian leaders appear adamant.
``If Palestinians were going to accept this, they would have done it when they were weaker than they are now,'' says West Bank journalist Sami Aboudi of the plan based on the Camp David formula for limited autonomy.
``Now that the intifadah [uprising] exists, Israel will have to accept our terms,'' he adds.
The task of squaring this diplomatic circle will probably fall to the United States, which is seeking to broker an acceptable compromise and win international backing for the principle of elections.
Right-wing Israeli politicians warn that the Shamir plan will lead to the redivision of Jerusalem and to a Palestinian state.
One specific issue that could precipitate a crisis is the question of giving Arabs living in East Jerusalem the right to vote.
A foreign ministry source says no formal debate on this or other details of the plan will begin until the principle of elections is first accepted by the international community.
Shamir presented his proposal to parliament on Wednesday. Under the plan, elections would be followed by negotiations leading to a period of limited Palestinian self-government and to eventual negotiations on the final status of the occupied territories.
On Monday, the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) dismissed the plan as a ``farce'' because it ignored the Palestinian demand for a homeland and an end to the Israeli occupation.
Similar views were echoed this week by leading West Bank Palestinians following separate meetings with a visiting US State Department delegation headed by Dennis Ross, chief of the Department's policy planning staff.
The dominant theme of Palestinian reaction to the plan is deep skepticism of Israeli motives, combined with fears regarding the risks such elections might entail.
Palestinian sources say that by loading the plan with unacceptable conditions, Israel is inviting the very rejection that would provide a pretext to employ more extreme measures to quell the intifadah.
More generalized is the feeling that without some clue to Israel's intentions regarding the ``final status'' of the territories, it would be a mistake to start the process.
``We don't want to be engaged in a process that will lead us to a state of limbo,'' Bir Zeit University professor Sari Nusseibeh told journalists following a meeting with the US diplomats this week. Conversations with a cross section of Palestinian sources this week suggest that in addition to Israel's commitment eventually to end the occupation and grant self-determination for Palestinians, two other issues are non-negotiable.
One is the inclusion of East Jerusalem Arabs in the voting. The other is some international - preferably US - guarantee of the election results.
``It's not a question of whether the elections will be fair or not fair because we know the results,'' says West Bank journalist Ibrahim Qareen, referring to the virtual certainty that Palestinians elected in the West Bank will be pro-PLO. ``But we need guarantees that those elected will not be deported, will not be killed, will not be put into jail.''
Of twelve West Bank mayors elected in the last voting permitted by Israel, in 1980, two were deported, two were injured in bomb attacks by members of the Jewish underground, and the rest were deposed.
Nor are threats posed only by Israelis. Recent circulars issued by Palestinian extremist groups have threatened reprisals against Palestinians who have attended meetings with Israelis and foreign diplomats.
``You are advertising their address for assassination,'' says another West Bank Palestinian of the risks that could attend being elected.
Another casualty of the election proposal, many Palestinians fear, could be the solidarity produced by the uprising. So far, internal differences have been largely subordinated as Palestinians joined in defying the occupation.
Designating candidates for election and hammering out bargaining positions with Israel would almost certainly exacerbate latent divisions, especially those between mainstream PLO supporters and Muslim fundamentalists who are united only in their opposition to Israel's 22-year occupation.
Opening the door to dissension before the occupation is thrown off could leave Palestinians with nothing to show for the sacrifices of the uprising.
``The elections as proposed are suicide for the intifadah and suicide for the PLO,'' predicts Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, one of several Palestinians who met earlier this week with the visiting US delegation.
Palestinians have made it clear that they don't object to elections in principle, but ``nothing is going to develop if Israel refuses to recognize a Palestinian state,'' adds Mr. Aboudi. ``In that case, in a few months we'll be back at square one, and the international community will have to find another way'' to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict.
From Cairo, Jane Friedman reports: Despite clear-cut statements earlier on the requirements for elections, Egyptian officials are maintaining a low profile following the visit of a US delegation to Cairo.
Foreign ministry officials say that Washington hopes to work with the Israeli plan, bringing Jerusalem closer to what Palestinians and moderate Arabs demand. The officials add that the Americans gave the impression they feared an Arab rejection of the plan would spur Israel to initiate an even tougher crackdown on the intifadah.
As a result, Egypt is avoiding condemning the plan even though it does not meet their requirements.
Speaking on Monday, after the US delegation departed, Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid said, ``We are not against the principle [of elections], but we have to see what the modalities will be, the guarantees, the international supervision, and what the outcome will be.''