Shamir Plan ‘alive and Kicking’ Despite Arab Rejection, Says U.S.

The United States tried Thursday to put the best face on a statement released the day before by 80 Palestinian leaders rejecting Israel’s call for elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“The fact that Palestinians inside and outside of the West Bank and Gaza are debating and discussing the election idea is a positive and healthy sign,” State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said at her daily briefing. “We are only at the beginning of a process.”

Tutwiler was commenting on reports of an underground leaflet circulating in the territories and signed by Palestinian academics, business leaders, journalists, doctors and engineers.

The document rejects Yitzhak Shamir’s call for Palestinian elections, which the Israeli prime minister has said would allow Palestinians to choose representatives to negotiate an interim period of autonomy with Israel.

Instead, the leaflet insists that Israel begin negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization and take part in an international Middle East peace conference, both of which the government adamantly opposes.

“This isolated occurrence of elections does not illustrate how it will lead to the end of the occupation and to Palestinian national independence,” says the document, according to a copy excerpted in The Washington Post.

PLO STATEMENT DIFFERS

The document also reportedly calls for a U.N.-supervised withdrawal of Israeli forces from the territories before any election could take place.

The document took a much more rejectionist tone than a statement made earlier in the week by Salah Khalaf, a deputy to PLO leader Yasir Arafat, that the PLO would accept elections if they were made part of an agreement for an Israeli withdrawal from the territories.

Khalaf, also known as Abu Iyad, said this was agreed upon during a three-day meeting in Tunis of all PLO factions, which ended Monday.

“We can discuss elections as one stage in a series of defined stages, as long as it is clear that the final settlement is self-determination and Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territory under (U.N. Security Council) Resolution 242,” Khalaf said Tuesday.

But Khalaf said that if the elections would lead only to autonomy “then we reject autonomy, and we have rejected it in the past.”

Palestinians consider “autonomy” a barely disguised continuance of the status quo in the territories, while they use “self-determination” as a synonym for a Palestinian state. Israel rejects a Palestinian state out of hand.

In an apparent response to Khalaf’s remarks, the United States on Wednesday said that it was “encouraged” by what it called “the willingness of Israelis, Palestinians and others in the area to explore the concept of elections as part of a broader political process.”

But that was before the rejection statement by 80 Palestinian leaders was reported. And meanwhile, Khalaf was amending his remarks. He was quoted Wednesday as saying, “We cannot accept elections in the shadow of occupation and without international supervision after the withdrawal of Israeli forces.”

EBAN MEETS WITH BAKER

Even in the face of those comments and the signed leaflet, U.S. officials are not yet prepared to let go of the election idea.

Tutwiler, when asked Thursday if U.S. officials believe Israel’s election idea is “alive and kicking,” responded, “Yes, we do.”

Secretary of State James Baker had no illusions that Shamir’s proposals would be embraced in whole by the Palestinian leadership inside or outside the territories, according to former Israeli Knesset member Abba Eban.

Eban met Thursday morning with Baker and Dennis Ross, director of the State Department’s policy and planning staff, at the State Department’s invitation.

He said Baker assured him that the United States will continue to display “patience and perseverance” in the face of conflicting reactions to the plan.

“It’s like a tennis match, and the ball will go from one court to another,” Eban said in a telephone interview. “The U.S. would like to keep the ball in the air as long as it can.”

(JTA staff writer Andrew Silow Carroll in New York and correspondents David Friedman in Washington and Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.)

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