Israel hints at broadened election plan


WASHINGTON -- Israel, faced with the virtual rejection of its municipal-election proposal for Palestinians in the occupied territories, yesterday dangled the remote possibility of "broader elections," which the Palestinians are demanding.

But the suggestion was accompanied by difficult caveats. One was that any election scheme would reduce the Palestine

Liberation Organization's influence in the occupied territories, the other that the broader elections would necessarily be the product of "a very complicated range of negotiations," as Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli spokesman and deputy foreign minister, described it.

Israel on Monday proposed holding "pilot" municipal elections in the West Bank and Gaza as a way of building democracy in the territories.

Palestinians, who are demanding territorywide elections for a Palestinian leadership as a key plank in negotiations on self-government, stopped just short of outright rejection of the Israeli plan.

Spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said municipal elections could not held until after the Palestinians hold what she called "national elections" for a transitional government.

fTC "There is no real proposal and we did not come here to indulge in [public relations] exercises. And we did not come here in order for the Israelis to extend their election campaigns to Washington," she told reporters. Israel holds elections June 23.

At a subsequent briefing, Mr. Netanyahu said, "The important thing to stress is this: This is not a substitute for broader elections. Broader elections involve a very complicated range of negotiations. . . . What we have offered is something that allows the undertaking of other elections immediately."

He also said that "from our point of view, the test of not only the pilot municipal elections that we're talking about but any other elections that will be undertaken would be the emergence of a leadership that breaks with the PLO. The PLO is committed to the destruction of Israel."

Any move toward a break with the PLO would be difficult, if not impossible, for Palestinian negotiators to accept, since even the moderate leadership heading the current talks views the PLO as representing the Palestinian movement.

Meanwhile yesterday, Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy disagreed in their talks about U.S. plans to invite Palestinians from outside the occupied territories to two meetings next month on Middle East refugees and regional economic development. Invitations to these meetings were sent out Monday.

Israel's ambassador to Washington, Zalman Shoval, told reporters that Mr. Levy had made it clear to Mr. Baker that Israel would not attend these or any other meetings that included Palestinian exiles because it was not interested in discussing the "right of return" of the 2.5 million Palestinian refugees scattered around the Middle East.

In Israel and the Israeli-occupied territories, the initial municipal-elections proposal was met with considerable derision.

Before leaving for Washington, the Palestinians already had rejected the proposal. The Israelis nevertheless presented the plan.

"It's not serious, and everybody knows it won't fly," said Shlomo Avineri, an Israeli professor of political science at Hebrew University.

"Municipal elections are about garbage collections," said Mr. Avineri, a former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry under the Labor government. "This is clearly intended to signal to the Palestinians they are not going to get to the much more serious issues that they want."

What the Palestinians are asking is elections throughout the occupied West Bank and Gaza to a body that would be, in effect, a national assembly.

The Palestinians say that the municipal-election plan would involve only about 30 percent of the Arab population, and still would leave the Israelis in total control.

"That would give the people only the right to deal with very limited operations in the cities," said Faisal al-Hussieni, the head of the Palestinian delegation who remained in Jerusalem during this round of talks. "Nothing in the villages, nothing in the small towns, nothing to do with the land issue or the political situation."

The ruling Likud party of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is trailingin the polls as it heads toward the June 23 elections, and the opposition Labor Party has hammered at the lack of progress in the peace talks.

When the municipal-election plan was floated in the Israeli press last week, most commentators shrugged it off as a campaign ploy.

"It's obviously the sort of proposal that makes the Likud look good," said Mr. Avineri. "Their supporters know it's a charade. The opponents know it's a charade. But to the unknowledgable, it sounds like something."

Municipal elections have been held twice since Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza during the 1967 Mideast war -- in 1972 and 1976. In the 1976 election, Palestinians overwhelmingly elected candidates supported by the PLO.

Those mayors were deposed after the Likud Party came to power in 1977, and Israel has not permitted elections since then.

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