JERUSALEM, April 18 (JTA) In signaling his willingness to make concessions to the Palestinians, Prime Minister Ehud Barak is playing to two audiences.
On the one hand, he is preparing the Israeli public for the creation of a Palestinian entity that will include most of the West Bank.
On the other, Barak wants to send a message to the Palestinian Authority that he is devoting far less attention to the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, which have reached an apparent deadlock.
In an interview with Israel Television prior to the start of Passover, Barak repeated what he had told his Cabinet earlier in the week that Israel is prepared to give the Palestinians territorial contiguity in the West Bank.
“It needs to be clear to us that what will emerge from an agreement is not a limited autonomy or protectorate,” he said Monday, broadly hinting that a final peace accord will result in the creation of a Palestinian state.
“There will not be good neighborliness between the two countries if one of them is a collection of islands on a map.”
Barak had offered further concessions at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, when he said Israel is not interested in annexing Palestinian areas surrounding Jerusalem.
“We have always prayed toward Jerusalem and have never directed any prayer toward Azariya and Abu Dis,” Barak said, referring to two Arab towns on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
Both during the Cabinet session and in the television interview, Barak made it clear that most Jewish settlements in the West Bank would remain in blocs under Israeli sovereignty in a final peace accord.
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.
During the Cabinet meeting, Barak said he is willing to provide the Palestinians with an “advance” on an upcoming withdrawal from the West Bank to underscore Israel’s seriousness about negotiations.
His comments came after he met last week in Washington with President Clinton. Clinton was slated to hold a similar session with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat later this week.
Following his meeting with Clinton, Barak said he is willing to have an increased U.S. presence in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations something the Palestinians have long sought.
With the Israeli-Syrian track deadlocked, Barak reportedly agreed with Clinton on the need to accelerate the Palestinian track.
Reflecting the enhanced U.S. involvement, U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross will participate in the next round of Israeli-Palestinian talks, which are scheduled to resume after Passover ends on April 27.
The talks will be held in Israel and the Palestinian self-rule areas, rather than in Washington, the site of the two previous rounds of negotiations.
U.S. officials have been upbeat about those talks, but they provided no indication that the two sides had made substantive progress toward a final peace deal.
The two sides are trying to reach a framework agreement for a peace accord by May, and a full accord by September.