With Israel's defeat of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Israeli-backed village leagues in the occupied West Bank are boldly moving to form a territory-wide political structure to replace the dispirited Palestinian nationalist leadership in the area.
The move to form a union of the seven independent village league associations in the West Bank has the full support of the Israeli government, which sees it as another step in its effort to encourage the emergence of "moderate" West Bank Palestinian leaders who would be willing to join with Israel in autonomy negotiations as called for in the Camp David peace accords.
The leagues, which claim to represent the 70 percent of the West Bank's population that live in rural areas not covered by municipal governments, were formed in 1979 under Israeli sponsorship to create a platform for moderate Palestinians and, ultimately, to serve as an alternative political structure to the nationalist city mayors who favor an independent state.
The elected mayors -- most of whom have been deposed in recent months for refusing to cooperate with the new Israeli civil administration--and other Palestinian nationalists have refused to participate in the autonomy talks, which they contend would lead to continued Israeli domination.
Hebron's acting mayor, Mustafa Natche, called the attempt to expand the influence of the leagues a "big propaganda ploy" that would fail. "The Palestinians here and all other places are pro-PLO," he said.
The village leagues have been self-described "nonpolitical" entities dealing mostly with agricultural development. But according to Mohammed Dudeen, the deputy to and brother of Mustafa Dudeen, the founder of the leagues, there will be an announcement within a few weeks of a conference of league representatives at which leadership for a new union of the leagues will be elected. Referring to proposed "political activities" of the new leadership, Dudeen said, "It would be natural for them to be the Palestinian representatives in the autonomy talks."
Both Dudeen and Israeli officials said the military defeat of the Palestinian guerrillas in Lebanon has seriously weakened the PLO's influence in the West Bank and has strengthened the village leagues.
Although the future of the Camp David autonomy talks is much in doubt, a united village leagues association -- Israel says about 25 percent of the West Bank's 474 villages belong to one of the seven leagues -- could over time be presented to the other Camp David participants -- the United States and Egypt -- as the legitimate representatives of the West Bank Palestinians.
Even if the stalled autonomy talks are never revived, a linking of the independent village leagues together and the formation of a governing council empowered to deal with "political activities" appears to be one more step toward making the leagues the dominant Palestinian authority in the territory.
Israeli officials contend that PLO terrorism and intimidation have prevented the emergence of a moderate Palestinian leadership willing to negotiate on autonomy. The defeat of the PLO in Lebanon, they say, should bring both new leadership and a decline in what the Israelis charge was PLO-inspired disturbances on the West Bank.
"It is our contention that the disturbances were orchestrated, and the minute the PLO is busy with other things -- like the Israeli Army in Lebanon -- it is quiet here," said Israeli civil administration spokesman Michael Oren.
There were a number of disturbances in the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the war in Lebanon broke out, but they did not rival the size of riots after several West Bank mayors were fired in the spring.
Local Palestinian officials say the area has remained relatively quiet this summer because the population was stunned and dispirited by Israel's crushing defeat of their fellow Palestinians in southern Lebanon.
Throughout the war in Lebanon, Israel has continued to tighten its grip on the territory it captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Within the last few weeks, for example, Prime Minister Menachem Begin's ruling party has absorbed a small, ultranationalist party into the government coalition, promising it that additional funds will be budgeted for the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The government also announced that four new settlements had been approved for the West Bank and that authority over water rights and distribution was being transferred from the West Bank civil administration to the Israeli water authority, further tying the occupied territory to Israel proper.
The village leagues are seen by Palestinian nationalists as a part of this overall process and specifically as a device the Israelis hope to use to impose a form of West Bank autonomy that would reserve major power for Israel as well as Israeli sovereignty. As the vehicle for the emergence of a moderate Palestinian leadership, the village leagues have been the beneficiary of Israeli largess such as development funds that are dispensed to villages willing to join. At the same time, Israel has restricted the powers and funds of elected West Bank governments, thereby hoping to make the leagues indispensable to the functioning of normal life.
But Oren denied charges by Palestinian nationalists that the other side of this policy is active punishment of those who refuse to cooperate with the leagues.
"There is a carrot, but no stick," he said