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Mosque massacre puts settlements in spotlight

History is littered with the tragedies of peoples and nations that woke up and acted too late to avoid them, and it begins to look like the failure of peace between Israel and the PLO could be one of them.

The Hebron massacre could end the latest peace efforts and with them the leadership of PLO leader Yasser Arafat and/or Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Or it could be the horrible act that awakened people in time _ as the bombing of the Sarajevo market may have done in Bosnia.

The peace talks are in deep difficulty. The two leaders want to continue, but popular feeling, particularly among the Palestinians, may not let them.

"Hebron is an explosion waiting to happen. The mixture of extreme settlers armed to the teeth, expanding their claims in and around the city, and a seething, resentful Arab population of 70,000 is too volatile to last."

I wrote that paragraph on Nov.

8, 1982, in the years when I periodically drove up and down the 30 miles between Jerusalem and Hebron. I dutifully checked in with the Palestinian mayor (one was expelled to Jordan and another took his place) and shopkeepers and then the settler extremists.

Jews had been massacred and driven from Hebron in 1929 during the long Zionist struggle with the Arab inhabitants to establish a Jewish state. Israel occupied it only in the 1967 war nearly 40 years later.

The settlements the then-Labor government allowed on the West Bank were mainly in areas important for the country's defense. The policy was to avoid the main Arab population centers along the central north-south axis where Hebron lies.

Extremists intent on re-establishing the biblical Israel did not agree. In 1968, American-born Rabbi Moshe Levinger and a group of followers suddenly and secretly established themselves in a Hebron hotel and refused to leave.

Later, after constructing their gleaming suburban fortress of Kiryat Arba on the hill overlooking the city, Levinger's extremists got a foothold inside Hebron itself almost in the middle of the teeming market area, and under the protection of the Israeli army gradually expanded it.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs, a cave where Abraham is buried, is both a synagogue and mosque and holy to Christians as well.

In the 1980s, an Israeli journalist friend of mine belonged to a reserve unit that in times of tension was called up to do duty at the tomb, and I visited him there. It was a duty that he and his friends, Israeli liberals who had served together in Israel's wars for years, dreaded.

One of his friends in the unit was a lawyer, another a publicist. They were middle aged with families and paunches, they hated their patrols through the deserted streets of Hebron because, among other things, they felt they had nothing in common with the settler extremists and they knew that serious trouble could erupt at any time. Rather gingerly, I remember, I went with them once, hoping to run into no trouble.

When Likud leader Menachem Begin came to power in 1977, settlement policy changed, aimed at creating "facts on the ground" that would eventually make the whole area part of a greater Israel.

In 1982, there were around 20,000 settlers. By 1986, I find reading back through my old columns, the government press office was giving the figure of 60,000 with the aim of having 100,000 by 1990 and 1.4-million by 2100, a number, it was said, that would be greater than the number of Palestinians.

A disproportionate number of the extremists, it seemed, were Americans who usually kept their U.S. citizenship in reserve against a rainy day.

Not all settlers by any means, neither Americans nor others, were extremists. Many I talked to might have been the nice neighbors next door, except that there was something, an identification, they never found growing up in the United States. They passionately believed they had found it in the dream of a greater Israel.

In the Likud years, everything was done to encourage settlers _ practically interest-free loans for better and bigger housing, land, water, utilities and roads in an attempt to make life cheaper and more comfortable in the West Bank than it was in nearby Israel itself.

And at least until the intifada uprising of young Palestinian rock-throwers began in December 1987, the Palestinian side of this story, I felt, was seldom widely told or understood in the United States _ the struggle of the occupied, unarmed majority against an armed minority; the loss of land, water; the denial of nationhood; the humiliation of always losing.

Trying to tell it often brought a torrent of abuse.

Last Saturday's mosque massacre was not the first killing suffered by either side in Hebron, but like the Sarajevo market mortar, it has seized world attention. What it did was put the settlements issue, which along with the issue of Jerusalem, was supposed to come last, at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Maybe more importantly, it put them at the center of the debate within Israel. If Baruch Goldstein, the gunman in the mosque, did not succeed in destroying the peace talks, he has done that.

Rabin has said no to the disarmament of all settlers, no to the renegotiation of the Israeli-PLO agreement and no to an international protection force for Palestinians. What he has done is try to disarm a few settlers and accept the idea of some international observers.

Among others, the Clinton administration has hinted he needs to do more. Almost certainly, in any permanent peace, the "political settlements," at the very least, will have to go.

But both leaders are in a spot.

Rabin finds Israeli opinion beginning to turn against the agreements that he has been determined to carry out. And he is being forced to negotiate with small right-wing and religious parties for more support in the Knesset, Israel's Parliament.

Arafat is now cursed throughout the West Bank and Gaza for making the agreement at all. But it may be that his weakness is also his strength, because even now, he is the one Palestinian leader who might conceivably deliver peace.

Yet both he and Rabin may have left it too late _ until neither may be able to deliver.