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Barak may seek referendum on peace framework


JERUSALEM, April 30 (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is considering holding a national referendum when and if Israel and the Palestinian Authority agree on the framework of a final peace accord.

Sources close to Barak said the prime minister discussed the idea with Cabinet members from his One Israel bloc.

First, however, Israel and the Palestinians must agree on the framework — no small task in light of the slow progress in talks so far.

On Sunday, the two sides launched accelerated talks aimed at reaching the broad outlines of a final accord.

Negotiators face a mid-May deadline for agreeing on the framework, but the sluggish pace of two previous rounds of talks held in Washington have prompted speculation that the target date may be again postponed to June.

After agreeing on the accord’s framework, the two sides will then have to conclude the accord itself by Sept. 13 to meet a self-imposed deadline.

The negotiators have four thorny issues topping their agenda — Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, final borders and Palestinian refugees.

In an effort to help speed the pace of the talks, U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross was expected to join the negotiators, who are meeting in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, on Tuesday.

According to Israeli media reports on Sunday, Barak may soon transfer security control over three Arab towns near Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority as an “advance” on a planned further pullback in the West Bank.

Barak would reportedly seek approval from his Security Cabinet for such a move, which is intended to build confidence in the talks with the Palestinians.

The villages — Abu Dis, Al-Azariya and Sawahara — are currently under Palestinian civil control and Israeli security control.

Arab towns near Jerusalem were initially to be included in an Israeli redeployment carried out several weeks ago.

But Barak came under political pressure from hawkish members of his government, and at the last minute the towns were excluded from the redeployment maps.

Barak began consulting Sunday with members of his coalition to see how they would react to his plans for advancing the negotiations.

Interior Minister Natan Sharansky, of the Yisrael Ba’Aliyah Party, adamantly opposed the idea of transferring to the Palestinians areas that “kiss Jerusalem.”

“I consider this a terrible mistake,” Sharansky told Israel Radio.

“I truly hope we will be able to remain in the government,” he added.

Barak’s proposals drew criticism from the Palestinian side as well.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinian Authority would not accept any Israeli advance on the next redeployment without first knowing the total scope of the planned pullback.

Palestinian officials also cried foul when Israel announced its intention to build 170 new housing units in a Jewish settlement near Jerusalem. Palestinian officials called the plans for Ma’aleh Adumim a betrayal of the peace process.

Meanwhile, ongoing tensions within Barak’s coalition over domestic issues have cast doubt on the government’s ability to make decisive political moves with the Palestinians.

The fervently Orthodox Shas Party and the secular Meretz Party have been engaged for months in a dispute over funding for Shas’ financially troubled school system.

Shas has repeatedly threatened to pull out of the government if it did not get the government funds — and last Friday it was Meretz’s turn.

Meretz, which controls the Education Ministry, said its ministers would resign from the government if Shas obtains special grants for its debt-ridden schools.

Meretz was responding to reports that Barak is ready to promise the funds to Shas in exchange for its commitment to back the government’s peace moves.

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