- The Washington Times - Friday, December 1, 2000

JERUSALEM Prime Minister Ehud Barak, whose political future now hinges on his ability to secure a peace agreement with Palestinians in the coming months, has proposed a partial deal that would give Palestinians a state but leave the thorniest issues to negotiations years down the road.
Mr. Barak outlined the plan in a meeting with journalists yesterday but Palestinians quickly rejected it, saying they would not settle for an accord that fails to solve the fate of Jerusalem and the status of Palestinian refugees.
The rebuff underscored the challenge Mr. Barak faces at the start of an election campaign imposed on him just 17 months after taking office. It also highlighted the vast political gulf dividing Israelis and Palestinians after more than two months of violence.
Two more Palestinians died in fighting yesterday, bringing the death toll since late September to 286. Most of those killed have been Palestinians.
Under Mr. Barak's plan, Israel would hand over another 10 percent of the West Bank to Palestinians, who now control about 40 percent of the area. Simultaneously, Israel would annex some settlements in the West Bank and recognize a Palestinian state.
"There's no reason we can't head for a partial agreement that would address some of the issues and leave others for later," Mr. Barak said in a speech to Israeli editors in Tel Aviv.
"In such an agreement, Jerusalem and the [Palestinian] right of return is delayed for a year, or two, or three," he said.
The two issues formed the main stumbling blocks in negotiations at Camp David in July on a final Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. Mr. Barak had gone to Camp David together with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, hoping to achieve a conflict-ending agreement.
But the collapse of the U.S.-led summit and the violence that erupted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in late September dashed hopes for a comprehensive deal and caused Mr. Barak's approval rating in Israel to plummet.
Washington said it was reserving judgment about the proposal.
"We'll support any agreement that the two parties can agree to, and we're prepared to help them resolve their differences," said White House spokesman Jake Siewert.
"Throughout the process, we've tried to play the role of a facilitator," said Mr. Siewert. "One of the ways in which we've done that is not to weigh in publicly on what we think of each individual proposal."
Mr. Barak's suggestion to bypass the difficult issues came just two days after he agreed to an early election.
A poll published yesterday in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper showed Mr. Barak being trounced by 51 percent to 37 percent by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if elections were held now. The vote is expected by May.
"If Barak succeeds in making a deal with Arafat, he'll win the election. If he doesn't, he's history," said Palestinian Cabinet minister Nabil Shaath, echoing the view of many Israeli analysts.
But Palestinians, who feel they have gained diplomatically from the fighting, have said for months that they would not accept a partial deal. Palestinians rejected an offer at Camp David to establish a state on 90 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip because it didn't include all of East Jerusalem.
"There must be a solution to all the permanent status issues, foremost of which are Jerusalem and refugees," said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a close adviser to Mr. Arafat.
Most Palestinians concede they would get far less from an Israeli government led by Mr. Netanyahu, a conservative who bargained hard over every bit of land handed over to Mr. Arafat's Palestinian Authority.
But anger at Mr. Barak runs high among Palestinians, who feel he has used vastly excessive force in trying to quell the violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Mr. Netanyahu, who was crushed by Mr. Barak in elections last year, had quit politics to write his book and conduct speaking engagements. He has kept his political plans to himself, but his allies in the Likud party say Mr. Netanyahu is planning a comeback.
His first step would be to recapture leadership of his party in a primary race against at least one candidate current Likud chairman Ariel Sharon. The task should not prove too difficult, according to surveys among Likud's rank and file.
Polls notwithstanding, a rematch against Mr. Barak would be more challenging.
Israeli public opinion tends to be volatile, with support often shifting from one candidate to the other in the final weeks of a campaign. A breakthrough on the peace front would almost certainly spark such a shift.
Israel had been linking a resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians to a substantial decline in violence. But Mr. Shaath predicted Mr. Barak would now be more willing to return to the bargaining table even as the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip continues.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said yesterday he believed it was still possible to reach a Palestinian-Israeli accord before the elections.
Mr. Ben-Ami told the Palestinian newspaper al-Ayyam that Israel might agree to confidence-building measures as part of an agreement to resume talks, including a freeze on Jewish settlement expansion.

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