JERUSALEM, JAN. 26 -- Seven weeks after the wave of Palestinian disturbances on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip began, the political consensus inside Israel behind the government's hard-line policy in smothering the anti-Israeli protests is starting to unravel.
The evidence is hazy and conclusions hard to draw but doubts appear to be increasing on several levels, some political analysts say. There is a slowly growing unease with the brutalizing effect the violence of the crackdown may be having on Israel's young citizen Army -- especially the newly enunciated policy of beating alleged Arab rioters -- coupled with the sense that the tough tactics have not worked because the crisis has taken so long to recede.
Recent public opinion polls indicate most Israelis continue to rally around the Army, which remains the country's most popular institution, and still believe that disturbances must be put down with a firm hand. There is still a backlash of anger and suspicion against the Arabs, both those in the occupied territories and those living in Israel. This anger, according to some analysts, may be behind the enthusiasm that some soldiers have shown in recent days in pursuing and beating Palestinians deemed to be defying military orders.
But many analysts say they now detect an undercurrent of something else: a popular feeling that Israel must be prepared to look beyond strictly military answers and that the status quo that existed before Dec. 9 in the territories cannot be restored. Political leaders are beginning to sense and respond to this current.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who used to contend that the disturbances must be suppressed before any talk of political negotiations could begin, now says the two should go hand in hand. While he still clings to the policy of nonlethal force, including beatings, Rabin has pledged swift punishment of soldiers overstepping the rules. Today he said that soldiers could use physical force only "against perpetrators of violence during the violence."
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has always said a political strategy was necessary to quell the disturbances but has been far more vocal in publicly expressing it in recent days, saying, "It is practically insane to propose that the country hop on one leg only -- the security leg."
Even Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, an intractable opponent of an international peace conference on the Middle East, is taking pains to portray himself as an advocate of negotiations, saying his opposition to a conference "is not a matter of stubbornness, of some kind of opposition," but rather because he believes such a session would torpedo hopes for direct bilateral talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
"There won't be massive demonstrations every weekend but there is uneasiness and you can't underestimate the value of uneasiness in Israeli politics," said Nachum Barnea, editor of the weekly magazine Koteret Roshit. "This is not a banana republic. Politicians are close to the ground here and they are very sensitive to problems around them. Everyone has a son or a brother or someone in the Army and everyone feels everything that is happening to them."
The unease has been further fueled by the United States, where Israeli security tactics have come under fire both from the American government and from leaders of American Jewish organizations. Among the critics are some Jewish leaders who until now have staunchly supported Israel in its attempt to suppress the disturbances, in which at least 38 Palestinians have been shot dead, most of them by Israeli troops, and hundreds injured. No Israelis have been killed in the disturbances.
The most concrete expression of growing concern here was last weekend's protest march by more than 50,000 Israelis in Tel Aviv, the biggest peace demonstration since a huge rally in 1982 against Israel's involvement in Lebanon that helped lead to the eventual withdrawal of Israeli forces from Beirut.
As a result, Barnea and others predict a flurry of diplomatic rhetoric and activity here in the next few weeks that may not amount to anything of substance but will be designed to appeal to a public that does not want Israel to appear intransigent on the Middle East peace issue.
The change in public consciousness has been slow to develop, analysts say, partly because this is the first major conflict that has not received blow-by-blow coverage from Israeli television. The public broadcasting company has been wracked by labor disputes and camera crews have been refusing to risk their bodies and their equipment by venturing into hostile territory for what they consider insufficient pay.
Union rules also prohibit Israeli television from using foreign networks' film of events in Israel.
But gradually the soldiers have come home for weekends and stories have been told around the dinner table. The public verdict, say many analysts, has not yet jelled; it depends in large part on whether the receding unrest flares up again and how long it lasts, and on how political leaders portray and deal with it.
The crisis carries both opportunities and large risks for the two major partners in Israel's divided coalition government, Peres' left-of-center Labor Alignment and Shamir's more hawkish Likud.
With parliamentary elections due to take place by November and with the rival blocs holding almost equal numbers of seats in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, each must find ways of appealing to the pivotal undecided vote residing in Israel's political center while not alienating its more ideological support base.
It is the unity of Peres' bloc, under whose umbrella are political groups of widely varied views on the violence, that has been most visibly shaken by the recent crisis. Rabin, the party's number two leader, has been the principal spokesman for the "iron fist," advocating beatings of alleged rioters, mass curfews and roundups, deportations and restrictions on press coverage.
These policies and Rabin's tough rhetoric have helped guard Labor's right flank from charges that it is soft on law and order. But they have deeply angered Laborites to his left, both Jews and Arabs.
Last weekend's defection of Abdel Wahab Darousha, Labor's sole Arab Knesset member, was an alarm bell to many in the party. Israeli Arab voters accounted for two or three of Labor's 44 seats in the 1984 election and their loss could make a critical difference in a tight race.
Shamir and the Likud also face risks, however. Until now, Shamir has firmly rejected proposals from Egypt and Jordan for an international conference that could serve as a vehicle for direct talks between Israel and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, a proposal Peres has endorsed. But there are growing internal pressures on Shamir to at least give the appearance of flexibility.
The Likud has to compete with Labor for the centrist undecideds, whose numbers are estimated to account for six to seven seats in the 120-member Knesset -- enough to be the critical margin. Many analysts argue that the Likud cannot afford to appear intransigent or unwilling to give peace a chance.
"We have to convince the floating voters in the center that we are not just negative, that we want a peace settlement just as much as Labor but that we're more cautious and more responsible," said Likud legislator Ehud Olmert, a top Shamir adviser.
Shamir has not changed his stance, rejecting as "nothing new" Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's offer last week to help broker a truce between the Israelis and the Palestinians, to be followed by an international conference.
But he has shown increased sensitivity to the need to show flexibility at home and to show that he is at least listening to Washington if not heeding U.S. advice. He sent a senior aide, Cabinet Secretary Eliakym Rubinstein, to Washington yesterday to sound out the Americans while trying to head off any new U.S. tendency to press for the international conference.
At the same time, Shamir rescinded a travel ban he had imposed Sunday on Palestinian newspaper editor Hanna Siniora, who was to fly to Washington to meet U.S. officials and private groups. The change of heart reportedly came after a strong protest against the ban by U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering.