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Israeli Leadership Near Agreement on Major Points of Elections Plan

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There is a large area of agreement among the four senior ministers of the Likud-Labor coalition government on the elections Israel proposes to hold in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Foreign Minister Moshe Arens said Sunday.

He said they were agreed, among other things, that Israel would negotiate an interim settlement with whomever the voters choose, “even if he/they proclaims him/themselves to speak for the Palestine Liberation Organization.”

Arens addressed reporters shortly after he and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, both of Likud, and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, both of the Labor Party, met to discuss the evolving Israeli peace plan, which includes Palestinian elections.

Both Arens and Peres, in separate comments to journalists, seemed to anticipate agreement among the four ministers on a document that will be submitted to the Cabinet next week and then to the Bush administration in Washington.

A delegation of U.S. State Department and National Security Council officials is due here next Saturday night for talks with Israeli leaders about their proposals.

The group is headed by Dennis Ross, chief of the State Department’s policy planning staff and a senior aide to Secretary of State James Baker. He will be arriving from Moscow, where Baker is to meet with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.

The group also will visit Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, apparently to try to ensure that the Arabs will not reject the Israeli proposals out of hand, at least at this early stage.

SPLIT OVER EAST JERUSALEM VOTE

Israelis have yet to agree on all aspects of the plan. Peres noted that the sensitive issue of the eligibility of Arab residents of East Jerusalem to vote did “not come up” at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting.

Peres and Rabin favor the participation of East Jerusalem Arabs. Shamir had been opposed, though he and Arens have taken no public position in recent days.

But several other ministers are on record against allowing East Jerusalem residents to vote, for fear of weakening Israel’s political and legal hold on the city.

The most scathing criticism of the entire election plan has come from Industry and Trade Minister Ariel Sharon, a hard-liner from Likud’s Herut wing.

In a weekend radio interview, he called the plan “a major calamity” and “the biggest ever national blunder” that would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state “and to the partition of Jerusalem.”

Political observers expect a showdown in Likud political forums, with Shamir and Arens defending the plan against critics like Sharon and Yitzhak Moda’i, the minister of economics and planning who heads Likud’s Liberal Party wing.

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