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U.S. Pressing Israel to Be More Flexible on Peace Plan

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The Bush administration is continuing to prod Israel to show more flexibility in its proposal for Palestinian elections in the administered territories.

First signs of the American pressure surfaced two weeks ago, when high-level American diplomats, meeting with Israeli leaders here, pressed them to clarify several points.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker sent Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Arens a letter urging Israel specifically to address the issue of allowing Arab residents of East Jerusalem to vote in the proposed elections.

According to the letter, reported by the Israeli news media Thursday, Baker also pointedly stressed Washington’s support of the land-for-peace formula and of political rights for the Palestinians.

Arens, in a reply letter this week, reportedly sidestepped the matter of East Jerusalem’s eligibility, explaining that the entire election proposal has yet to be discussed by the Cabinet.

But according to media reports, written proposals currently evolving in top ministerial circles avoid specific references to that issue, apparently because Labor and Likud leaders do not see eye-to-eye on it.

SESSIONS WITH PALESTINIANS

Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Labor supports allowing the East Jerusalem residents to vote, provided they do so outside the city limits, because the city is Israeli territory.

Other Laborites, notably Deputy Finance Minister Yossi Beilin, are strong advocates of the right of East Jerusalem Arabs to vote and to stand as candidates.

But many Likud ministers are forcefully opposed. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who formally proposed the election idea to President Bush last month, has remained quiet on the issue.

According to the Israeli proposal, the elections would choose Palestinian representatives with whom Israel would negotiate an interim arrangement for Palestinian self-rule in the territories.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem was reported Thursday to be organizing meetings between a high-level group of American officials due here this weekend and local Palestinian leaders.

The group is headed by Dennis Ross, director of the State Department’s policy-planning staff. He is arriving here from Moscow, where he accompanied Baker for meetings with Soviet officials.

Ross, who headed the U.S. working group on regional issues in Moscow, will be joined by Richard Haass, the National Security Council’s director for the Near East and Southeast Asian affairs.

While here, the Americans are expected to help their Israeli counterparts draft the precise language of the election proposal.

The team is also expected to travel to Jordan and Egypt.

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