NEW YORK (Aug. 21)
Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres reiterated Thursday that he was ready to respond positively to Egypt’s invitation to host talks between Israel and a Palestinian delegation on the issue of elections in the administered territories.
But he appeared to back off from the brink of a coalition crisis with the Likud bloc over the issue of Israeli participation.
“We don’t want to bring down the government, we want to bring up the peace initiative,” Peres told a gathering of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Israel’s coalition government is split over a 10-point proposal drawn up by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to advance the Israeli plan for elections, which was announced last spring.
Among the 10 points are the proposal for preliminary Israeli-Palestinian talks, insistence that “land for peace” be the guiding principle of negotiations and a guarantee that Arab residents of East Jerusalem will be able to participate in the elections.
While Likud has rejected the 10-point plan, Peres and his Labor colleagues have said it represents an acceptable starting point for negotiations.
In both his speech to the Conference of Presidents and in comments to reporters afterward, Peres spoke of the Likud party’s objections to the Egyptian plan in less confrontational tones than he had on Tuesday, when he told a Los Angeles Jewish group that his party would not be part of a government that did not support peace. He threatened a “divorce” from Likud.
When reporters here asked him on Thursday about his Los Angeles remarks, Peres replied that he was “not interested in divorces today.”
IS READY TO INCLUDE DEPORTEES
Though his tone was more conciliatory, Peres continued to make it clear that he sharply disagrees with the Likud on several key issues, notably allowing Palestinians who had been deported from the administered territories to participate in the proposed Egyptian-sponsored dialogue.
“Deportees are residents of the territories,” Peres said at a briefing for reporters held after his morning speech. “We have never said that deportees can never return.”
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has categorically rejected the idea of holding negotiations with Palestinians who have been deported.
Peres also reiterated his view that though he objects to a divided Jerusalem, he “can live with” the participation of East Jerusalem Arabs in electing Palestinian negotiating partners, another idea to which Shamir and the Likud strenuously object.
During his remarks to the Conference of Presidents, the vice premier said it is “just as important to take note of what is excluded” from the 10-point proposal, as what is included in it.
He pointed out that the Egyptian plan contains no references to the Palestine Liberation Organization or to the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination.
The proposal also includes neither a mention of the right of Palestinians living outside the territories to return to them nor any demand that Israel return to its pre-1967 borders.
Still, Peres made clear his willingness for some territorial compromise with the Palestinians.
GIVING UP PEOPLE, NOT LAND
When questioned by an American Jewish leader about his support of the “land for peace” principle, his response was emphatic.
“I’m not for giving up land for peace,” Peres said, “I’m for giving up an Arab majority for a Jewish state. Is Gaza, for example, a land or a people? Gaza is a 220-mile-long strip with 650,000 Arabs.”
He added that with the large number of Palestinian children born in Gaza each year, the region could aptly be described as “a huge kindergarten.”
Peres arrived in New York on Wednesday, in time to deliver speeches at dinners held by the American Associates of Ben-Gurion University and the Synagogue Council of America.
Following his appearance Thursday at the Conference of Presidents Conference, Peres, who serves as finance minister in the Cabinet, met with Canadian Jewish businessman Albert Reichman, as well as a visiting trade delegation from the Soviet Union.
He also joined New York Gov. Mario Cuomo in the ceremonial signing of an agreement for cooperation between Israel and the State of New York in the fields of technology, trade and culture.
Peres is scheduled to meet in New York with President Bush on Monday and with Mubarak on Thursday. Both will be attending the 44th United Nations General Assembly.