Barak Says He’s Willing to Hand over Land to the Palestinians Even Earlier

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak may give the Palestinians an “advance” on an upcoming withdrawal from the West Bank to underscore Israel’s seriousness about negotiations, the premier was quoted as telling his Cabinet.

Barak also said during Sunday’s Cabinet meeting that Israel is not interested in annexing Palestinian areas surrounding Jerusalem and that most Jewish settlements would remain in blocs under Israeli sovereignty in a final peace accord.

“We have always prayed toward Jerusalem and have never directed any prayer toward Azariya and Abu Dis,” Barak was quoted as saying, referring to two Arab towns on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

The Cabinet meeting was held amid reports that Barak is considering handing over to the Palestinians up to 80 percent of the West Bank as part of a final peace deal.

The reports drew alarm among Jewish settlement leaders, who are vowing to launch demonstrations against Barak’s government and have called on him to hold a national referendum before he signs any deal with the Palestinians.

At the same time, the leaders expressed optimism that Barak would end a freeze on constructions projects in West Bank Jewish settlements. Last week, settlers illegally resumed building at a number of sites.

Barak authorized Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh to meet with the settlement leaders to discuss the freeze.

Barak’s remarks to his Cabinet came after his talks in Washington last week with President Clinton, who was slated to meet with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat later this week.

With the Israeli-Syrian track deadlocked, Barak reportedly agreed with Clinton on the need to accelerate the Palestinian track.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been meeting at an air base outside Washington in an effort to reach the framework of a final peace agreement by May and conclude the agreement itself by September.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported Sunday that in his meeting with Clinton, Barak said Israel would recognize a Palestinian state in the framework agreement.

At the same time, Barak set a number of conditions for granting such recognition, including that the Palestinian state be demilitarized, that the main Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank be annexed to Israel and that Palestinian refugees will not return to any parts of Israel.

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