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Early last week Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer disclosed new tidings: He announced he had worked out an agreement with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to set up a security fence "more or less" along the Green Line. The agreement was reached during a meeting with heads of the security establishment and the position upheld by these officials enabled Ben-Eliezer to reach an agreement with Sharon. As a result of the agreement, Ben-Eliezer added, construction work on the fence would begin within two weeks.

A week has gone by since this announcement. In another week, we will know whether Ben-Eliezer's disclosure was serious.

Ben-Eliezer has good intentions. He is a dedicated defense minister, who always looks as though he urgently needs some sleep. He works very hard and, in contrast to the prime minister, he doesn't project the sense that he's enjoying every moment of his job. On the contrary, Ben-Eliezer looks as though responsibility pressures him incessantly and causes him grief from time to time. To his credit, it must be said that Ben-Eliezer has enough wisdom and modesty to realize that he needs to choose high-quality assistants - a virtue that eludes some of Israel's leaders.

Ben-Eliezer also has a plausible policy plan, which he unfolded three weeks ago at a meeting of the Labor Party's central membership. The plan provides a reasonable compass to guide Israel through the coming period. The defense minister's plan proposes that a mix of the Saudi peace initiative and Clinton's program can suffice to end the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. In other words, Labor's current leader assented to a near-total withdrawal to the 1967 borders, the dismantling of all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and some on the West Bank, division of authority in Jerusalem, a mutual agreement by both sides conceding sovereignty on the Temple Mount, land exchanges between Israel and the Palestinian state, and a practical solution to the refugee problem which does not include a right of return to Israeli territory. This is a prescription which Israel's peace camp can support as a basis for negotiations with the Palestinians, and Ben-Eliezer's proposal differs sharply from the right-wing view spearheaded by Likud.

What Ben-Eliezer lacks is consistency and resilience. His term up to now can be likened to a bug jittering around the car windshield: He was for and against the seizure of Orient House; he opposed the siege on Yasser Arafat but was in favor of extracting as much utility as could be squeezed from the siege until Sharon decided to end it; he was for and against the Negev law; and for and against the cancellation of tax breaks for residents of border communities. Ben-Eliezer wanted to make concession gestures to Arafat in order to attain a cease-fire agreement, and he also supported the launching of an aggressive campaign against the Palestinian leader; he favored giving Arafat clearance to travel to the Arab summit conference in Beirut, and he assented to Sharon's decision to stop Arafat from traveling; he supported the description of Arafat as a leader who has played out his role in history, and he recognized Arafat's continued service as PA chairman. He declared that Arafat must be treated as an enemy, and then a few days later embraced the view that Arafat is the only Palestinian with whom an agreement can be reached; he called for the implementation of Operation Defensive Shield II in Gaza (after a terror strike in Rishon Letzion), and was also in favor of scuttling this army operation.

Ben-Eliezer's positions continue to zig and zag. Though broad contours of his peace plan appear to be clear, Ben-Eliezer sometimes adds conditions and corollaries that contradict its gist. He says he isn't prepared to negotiate while violence persists, and that there's no point to discussions with Arafat. Ben-Eliezer believes that so long as the Palestinian uprising continues, any Israeli concession will merely whet the Palestinians' appetite for continued violence, since the concession would be viewed as symptomatic of the weakness which (Palestinians believe) led to the IDF's withdrawal from Lebanon. In light of such statements, how valid can the defense minister's formal, declared peace plan be? Similarly, in view of his tospy-turvy performance in his roles as Labor leader and defense minister, can Ben-Eliezer's statement about the establishment of a security fence along the Green Line have much credibility?