The Israeli military government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip today canceled municipal elections scheduled for late April in Arab towns and cities in the occupied territories.

In explaining the move, Israel asserted that the vote might fall too close to the election of the self-governing authority envisioned in the Camp David peace accords. But West Bank mayors condemned the decision, saying it was a move to cut support for an autonomy plan in the territories.

Back-to-back elections, Israeli officials said, would be unwieldly and would not serve the interest of the peace process as well as if balloting for municipal officials and the autonomy elections were held simultaneously.

The mayors said Israel's motive is to undermine Palestinian opposition to the limited self-rule scheme being negotiated by Israel, Egypt, and the United States.

"This idea is rejected. The solidarity of Palestinians to face all such schemes is firm," said Ramallah Mayor Karim Khalif.

Other West Bank mayors joined in the protest, but there appeared to be little the Palestinian leaders could do, since elections are held at the sufferance of the military government.

Israeli defense officials said that if the autonomy negotiations, scheduled to resume later this month in Tel Aviv, break down entirely, the municipal elections could be rescheduled with a three-month lead time.

"I don't know if anybody believes there will be an agreement [on autonomy] by May; an Army official said. "But at this stage we can't afford to rule it out." He was referring to the May 25 autonomy target date mentioned in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

While the official explanation of the decision stressed convenience, sources in the government conceded that April elections would inevitably boost Palestinian opposition to the autonomy plan and make the prospect for an agreement more remote. So far, not one significant West Bank or Gaza Strip political figure has endorsed the Camp David accords, but the Israeli government has clung to the belief that once autonomy elections are scheduled, lesser known candidates would come forward and force the mayors to participate also, or be left out of the picture.

"If the mayoral elections were in April, then there's no doubt the candidates would campaign against autonomy and the whole area would begin to boil," one government source said. He predicted the candidates would abandon local issues and compete among themselves to appear the most nationalistic.

The military government said, however, that if an autonomy agreement has not been reached by the May deadline, "we will review our decision" canceling the mayoral election.

Israel conducted Palestinian elections in the West Bank in 1972 and 1976, and the last election signaled an abrupt shift in political power among Palestinians. The old political establishment that closely indentified with Jordan -- which controlled the West Bank from 1948 until Israel captured it in the 1967 Six-Day War -- was swept out of office and replaced by younger and more militant leaders who openly support the Palestine Liberation Organization.