Peace bid becomes Israeli election issue

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM -

Less than a week before Israeli voters pick a new leader, the candidate most involved in negotiations with the Palestinians is on the defensive over newly reported details of an interim peace accord offered months ago by outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the standard bearer of Olmert's centrist Kadima Party, was already trailing in the polls before the disclosures last week prompted the hawkish front-runner to accuse her of agreeing to "surrender" parts of Jerusalem for an independent Palestinian state.

Talks between Israel and Palestinian leaders in the West Bank have been suspended since Israel began an assault on the Gaza Strip in late December and are unlikely to resume before Olmert's successor takes office.

Livni has said that if she succeeds Olmert, she will work with U.S. President Barack Obama's administration to revive the talks and push for a two-state agreement. But her backers say her bid has been complicated by an Israeli newspaper's report on Olmert's peace offer, even though Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas spurned it.

"Peace is not a popular word in Israel right now," said Nachman Shai, a retired army officer running for parliament from Kadima. "Parties running on an all-out peace platform are bound to lose."

Polls show Kadima trailing former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing opposition Likud party by three to 12 seats in Tuesday's election of a 120-seat parliament. If Likud wins the most seats, Netanyahu, who is cool to a peace accord, would form the next government.

Netanyahu has capitalized on the conflict in Gaza by appealing to voters who believe Israel should have prolonged its offensive aimed at stopping Palestinian rocket fire.

Militants have defied a Jan. 18 cease-fire with scattered attacks from Gaza, including a Grad missile strike yesterday on the Israeli city of Ashkelon. Israeli warplanes struck back later in the day, bombing tunnels that militants have used to smuggle in weapons from Egypt.

Olmert made his peace offer last fall to Abbas and reported details of it last week to George J. Mitchell, Obama's special envoy to the Middle East.

An official in the prime minister's office said the outlines of the proposal reported Thursday by the newspaper Yediot Aharonot were accurate. But he denied the newspaper's assertion that Olmert was seeking to bind his successor to it.

Under the proposal, Israel would relinquish the Gaza Strip, all but a small part of the West Bank and Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods, a handover that would uproot more than 60,000 Jewish settlers from the West Bank.

The Jewish part of Jerusalem and large suburban-style West Bank settlements near the city would remain in Israel's hands. In return for annexed West Bank land, the Palestinians would get a strip of the Negev Desert adjacent to Gaza and a tunnel or overpass connecting the two territories.

An international body representing Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Israel and the United States would administer religious sites in Jerusalem's Old City and holy basin to ensure access for Christian, Muslim and Jewish worshippers. Israel would retain formal sovereignty over those sites.

Palestinians who fled or were forced out of Israel around the time of the Jewish state's founding in 1948 would forfeit their right to return, although Olmert offered to accept a limited number - up to 50,000, according to Israel's Channel 10 television - under a family-reunification program.

Netanyahu seized on Israel's proffered concessions to portray Livni as "weak on security." His party has plastered that slogan on buses and billboards in recent days.

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