JERUSALEM (Apr. 1)
Prime Minister Shimon Peres has proposed holding a national referendum before signing a permanent-settlement agreement with the Palestinians. Peres made the surprise announcement Monday in an interview with Army Radio as he was traveling to the Persian Gulf state of Oman.
The announcement, which parallels Peres’ promise to hold a referendum before signing any peace agreement with Syria, was criticized by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Peres’ opponent in the May 29 national elections.
“I am puzzled by the attempts by Mr. Peres to bypass the real referendum,” Netanyahu told Army Radio. “A real referendum is the elections.”
Palestinians leaders also criticized the idea, saying that it represented a bad-faith negotiating posture.
The final-status negotiations with the Palestinians on such issues as Jerusalem and the fate of Jewish settlements are scheduled to begin in May.
Israeli officials have said the talks would likely start on time, but that substantive issues would not be addressed until after the Israeli elections.
Peres told reporters accompanying him to Oman that he envisioned the creation of a confederacy between Jordan and the Palestinian entity after the negotiations’ conclusion.
Peres arrived in Oman on Monday for a two-day state visit aimed at boosting trade between the two countries.
He was accompanied by a delegation of leading Israeli industrialists.
Although Israel and Oman have no formal diplomatic ties, Peres was received at the airport with a full state ceremony and military band.
During a meeting between Peres and Oman’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, the two leaders affirmed their commitment to a comprehensive Middle East peace and to developing bilateral relations.
From Oman, Peres is slated to travel to the Persian Gulf state of Qatar.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin visited Oman in December 1994; Peres’ visit to Qatar will be the first by an Israeli prime minister.
During his trip, Israel and Qatar are expected to sign an agreement to establish lowlevel economic ties.
Israel already has such an agreement with Oman.
Israel Radio reported that a site had been found in the Omani capital of Muscat for the Israeli economic mission there.
In their first economic accord, Qatar and Israel signed an agreement for the sale of natural gas to Israel.
While Peres was in Oman, Israeli officials announced that they would further ease the closure imposed on the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the wake of a recent series of Hamas suicide bombings in Israel.
Some 3,000 Palestinians from Gaza who are older than 45 will be allowed to work at agricultural jobs in southern Israel, Agriculture Minister Ya’akov Tsur said Monday.
Tsur said lists of eligible workers were being drawn up and that they should be able to begin working during the intermediate days of the Passover holiday.
Palestinian officials have complained of shortages and growing unemployment since the closure was imposed in late February.
The Israel Defense Force chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak, said this week that he was in favor of easing the closure, which he warned could lead to violence within the Palestinian autonomy.