Indications that the Palestine Liberation Organization has conditionally accepted Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s proposal for Palestinian elections in the administered territories are being viewed here as both a major advance and a potential challenge for the government peace plan.
Reports that the PLO leadership in Tunis has relaxed its conditions for accepting free elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were based on details of a meeting in Paris last week between Israeli and Soviet officials, as well as an American memorandum said to have reached Jerusalem.
The reports were strengthened by comments made Wednesday by Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij. Emerging from a meeting with Energy Minister Moshe Shahal, Freij declared that the PLO leadership has already given its consent to the elections plan.
Elections could take place “within a year,” he said.
Freij, a widely respected Arab politician, reportedly told Shahal that the proposed elections should not be made conditional on an end to the Palestinian uprising, because the intifada would die down of its own volition once the elections process began.
Details of the Paris meeting were provided by Nimrod Novik, who met with Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Terrasov. Novik is a political adviser to Vice Premier Shimon Peres.
The two were said to have discussed the American memorandum, which reportedly said the United States had received PLO assurances that it has agreed to elections in the territories and is ready to set up a negotiating team to work out the arrangements with the Israeli government.
WANTS PROMISE OF TERRITORIAL CONCESSIONS
According to the reports, carried in the Jerusalem Post and the Hebrew daily Ha’aretz, the PLO has dropped its demand that the Israeli army withdraw completely from the territories and be replaced by an international observer force before elections take place.
Instead, it would agree to have a team of American and Egyptian observers monitor the referendum.
But the PLO reportedly is insisting that before the negotiating team is set up to iron out the arrangements, Israel publicly accept the principle of giving up land for peace, as contained in United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.
That is an issue that could divide the Israeli government. Labor supports giving up portions of the West Bank, while Likud is staunchly opposed to further territorial concessions.
In Washington, State Department Margaret Tutwiler said Wednesday that she knew of no such American memorandum.
But she added. “The PLO has told us privately, as it has said publicly, that it supports the election concept as part of a comprehensive peace plan.
However, the PLO has put a number of conditions on its support for elections which would prejudge the outcome of a negotiated solution.”
“These conditions are not acceptable to us,” she said. “This is key issue which we continue to discuss in our dialogue with the PLO.”
The reports of possible PLO concessions were the latest of a string of major developments on the government peace plan to occur since the end of last week.
On Saturday, acting on a longstanding U.S. request, Israeli authorities reopened schools in the West Bank, with the tacit cooperation of the uprising leadership.
A day later, the Cabinet voted 21-4 to reaffirm the government peace plan, without tough new conditions adopted by the Likud Central Committee.
BEILIN SAYS ISRAEL TALKING WITH PLO
On Monday, PLO officials reported that they had endorsed recent meetings between Shamir and four Palestinians in the territories, a contention hotly denied by the Israeli premier.
The following day, one of those Palestinians, attorney Jamil Tarifi of El-Bireh, came forward and confirmed that he was among the PLO supporters who had met recently with Shamir.
Both Tarifi and Freij were careful not to identify themselves with the PLO in any way. This enabled Shamir and his aides to continue to maintain that Israel is conducting no negotiations with the PLO, either directly or indirectly.
But Deputy Finance Minister Yossi Beilin, a Labor dove and close associate of Peres, took issue with that claim Wednesday.
Speaking on the Knesset floor, he declared that Israel has been conducting indirect negotiations with PLO, via the United States, Egypt and Romania, with the purpose of obtaining a green light for the election plan.
Speaking later in the day at a meeting of Likud ministers, Shamir said Beilin’s comments amounted to a “distortion of the facts.” He reiterated that there were no negotiations with the PLO, either direct or indirect.
And Foreign Minister Moshe Arens, who met Wednesday with a personal emissary of Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu, again rejected proposals that Israel talk to the PLO.
Shamir’s opponents within Likud were not so sure, however.
Economics and Planning Minister Yitzhak Moda’i described the prime minister’s rejection of Beilin’s remarks as “pretense.” He warned in a radio interview that if the current talks with the Palestinians become full-fledged negotiations, it will mean a “Palestinian state and an end to the Likud.”
He described the talks with the PLO as “nothing new” except for the fact that until now, no one had admitted that they were taking place.
Deputy Premier David Levy came out of the Likud ministers meeting describing the atmosphere, somewhat mysteriously, as one of “preparedness for developments.” He would not elaborate, but added, “Soon we will need to give clear answers to certain questions.”
(JTA correspondent Howard Rosenberg Washington contributed to this report.)
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