An effort by Israel to enhance self-rule among Palestinians in the occupied West Bank by appointing moderate Arab mayors appeared near collapse today as nominees withdrew their candidacies following the assassination Sunday of Nablus Mayor Zafri Masri.

Jamil Tarifi, 38, a lawyer from Biera, notified the Israeli occupation government that he was withdrawing his name as a candidate less than 24 hours after Masri, a symbol of Israeli attempts at "devolution" of Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank, was shot to death by an unidentified gunman in front of his office.

Similarly, Nadim Zaro, a former minister in the Jordanian government who had been expected to apply to the Israeli authorities for the mayoral appointment in Ramallah, published an advertisement in an East Jerusalem Arabic newspaper denying ever having sought public office, and then went to Amman, the Jordanian capital.

Walid Mustafa Hamad, an engineer who also had sought appointment as mayor of Biera, withdrew, saying he wanted time to rethink his political future.

In Hebron, Mohammed Rashid Jabari, head of the city's education department, said press reports that he intended to apply for a mayoral appointment were "incorrect."

Palestinian sources said other prospective political appointees were expressing doubts about accepting public office in the aftermath of the assassination of Masri.

[Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, speaking to reporters at Tel Aviv airport late tonight after returning from a trip to Europe, said it appeared that "all the possible mayoral candidates" had withdrawn, but that Israel would have "no difficulty running the Arab towns by means of our own military officers," Reuter reported.]

Two Syrian-supported radical splinter groups of the Palestine Liberation Organization have said they killed Masri, linking the assassination to Israeli attempts to impose a measure of self-rule in the occupied territories by appointing new mayors.

Israeli radio said tonight that the 7.65mm pistol used to kill Masri was the same gun used to kill an Israeli border policeman in January and an Israeli merchant last August, both in Nablus, The Associated Press reported.

A leading businessman in Jenin, who had been attempting to organize a municipal council acceptable to Israel, said he was abandoning the project for now because of the danger of assassination.

"Of course there is fear surrounding such activities. Everybody is waiting to think over making such a step," said Fathi Fahmawi, head of Jenin's Chamber of Commerce.

Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres had said he intended to go ahead with plans to nominate Palestinian mayors to cities and towns throughout the West Bank as an initial phase of implementing a measure of self-rule in the occupied territories.

Before the 1967 war, West Bank mayors were appointed by the Jordanian monarch from among elected municipal council members. Under Israeli occupation, the terms of the mayors were extended until 1972, when local councils were elected and were permitted by Israel to choose their mayors.

Elections were held again in 1976, with women allowed to vote for the first time. While the PLO had opposed the 1972 elections, it played an active role in 1976 and several towns elected councils that backed the PLO.

Virtually all the Arab mayors of the West Bank were deposed in 1982 following four years of political turmoil and strident Palestinian nationalism in the territory. Since then, most towns and cities have been administered by Israeli Army officers.

West Bank Palestinian activists said today that Masri's death had effectively stalled efforts to implement Peres' plan.

Hanna Siniora, editor of the pro-PLO East Jerusalem Arabic daily Al Fajr, said Masri's assassination had weakened Hussein and strengthened prospective candidates in the West Bank who back PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Masri's assassination has also led to the shelving of plans by a group of moderate Palestinians from the Bethlehem area to send a delegation of senior pro-Jordanian political figures to Amman to express support to Jordan's King Hussein following his break with Arafat two weeks ago.

"Everybody in the West Bank is running scared, and who can blame them after they saw what happened to Masri," said a senior source in the Israeli military command.

"Arab politicians know that when they accept an appointment to political office they are in danger, sooner or later, of coming under the gun. It's a risk they consider when they decide to enter politics," the Israeli Army official said.

He said the Israeli Army routinely offers protection to Palestinian candidates, but that almost invariably they refuse it because "it may make them a target."

The Army command source said Masri had been offered a pistol and a bodyguard by Israeli security officials, but had refused both.

Tarifi, a former deputy mayor of Biera, today attributed Masri's death, in part, to Hussein's decision to sever his ties with the PLO, and also on attempts by Peres to impose limited autonomy on the 1.3 million Arab inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Hussein's split with Arafat, Tarifi suggested, prompted fears within the radical PLO splinter groups that mainstream Palestinian supporters of Arafat, such as Masri, would begin their own political initiative in the West Bank.

Political assassinations in the West Bank have been commonplace during the 19 years of Israeli occupation, and during the Jordanian administration before the 1967 war.

Since 1967, most of the victims have been Palestinians alleged to have collaborated with Israeli authorities. But some of the slayings have been attributed to feuds among Arabs, such as the 1979 slaying of the imam of Gaza, Hashem Huzander, a supporter of then Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's peace initiative. Huzander's death was attributed to a PLO splinter faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.