Israel's Labor Party Offers the Palestinians Large Parts of Jerusalem

Published December 20, 2002

| Associated Press

Israel's Labor Party has adopted a new platform offering the Palestinians parts of Jerusalem and joint administration of disputed holy sites — the most explicit program of compromise laid out before an election by a major Israeli party.

Labor officials Friday confirmed the content of the platform, which formalizes campaign promises made by party chief Amram Mitzna ahead of the Jan. 28 elections.

As prime minister, Mitzna would withdraw immediately from the Gaza Strip without preconditions and resume peace talks with the Palestinians, the program says. If there is no agreement after a year, Israel will withdraw from considerable parts of the West Bank and draw its own "security border."

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said Labor's plans were a "step in the right direction."

"I hope they will cut the long story short and start telling the Israeli people that the road to peace is to end the occupation and withdraw," Erekat said.

Labor continues to trail Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hawkish Likud Party. However, polls published Friday indicated that Likud was losing some ground because of a corruption scandal involving allegations of bribery in internal party elections. In two surveys, Likud lost 10 percent of its strength in just a week.

The Palestinian Elections Commission, meanwhile, formally recommended to Yasser Arafat that the Palestinian leader postpone a vote set for Jan. 20 until after Israeli troops withdraw from West Bank towns. Arafat said his Cabinet would decide Sunday.

In new violence Friday, an Israeli rabbi was shot and killed in Gaza while driving with his wife and six children from a cluster of Jewish settlements. The radical Islamic Jihad group claimed responsibility for the shooting in a phone call to The Associated Press.

In Gaza, Israeli tanks entered the town of Deir al-Balah in the center of the strip, surrounding the house of an activist in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia linked to Arafat's Fatah movement. Troops failed to capture the man.

Gun battles there left one Palestinian killed, Palestinians said. The Israeli military said soldiers hit several armed Palestinians. An army spokesman also said searches of homes turned up caches of weapons and explosives.

The new Labor platform was adopted Thursday after weeks of discussions among 150 party officials, including local leaders and legislators, said party spokeswoman Maya Ben-Gal.

It was the first time Labor addressed in detail how it plans to end the conflict with the Palestinians, especially concerning the explosive issue of Jerusalem. In 1999 elections, then-party leader Ehud Barak stuck to vague statements, usually emphasizing what concessions he would not make, in hopes of attracting centrist voters.

Mitzna's program says that in a peace deal, Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem should fall under Palestinian rule and Jewish areas should remain with Israel. The key disputed holy site, the Al Aqsa Mosque compound or Temple Mount, either should come under joint administration or be governed in another mutually acceptable arrangement, Ben-Gal said, citing the document.

In peace talks at Camp David in the summer of 2000, Barak offered the Palestinians a foothold in Jerusalem. The dispute over Jerusalem holy sites emerged as a major sticking point, with the Palestinians insisting on sovereignty over the mosque compound. Sharon vehemently opposes any concessions in Jerusalem.

Labor also would redirect $3 billion in funding for Jewish settlements to poor communities in Israel.

The Labor platform does not detail the scope of its proposed West Bank withdrawal, in the event that peace talks fail.

The Maariv daily said a team of senior army reserve officers already has prepared a West Bank map showing which settlements would be uprooted.

Under the plan, Israel would retain 35 percent of the West Bank, including areas where 160,000 Jewish settlers live, Maariv said. About 35,000 settlers would be removed from their homes, while 55,000 Palestinians would live under Israeli rule.

The Palestinians were given full or partial control of 42 percent of the West Bank under interim peace accords that crumbled during the current fighting. Israeli troops presently are deployed throughout the West Bank.

Maariv said the map was prepared by Danny Yatom, former chief of the intelligence service Mossad, and awaits Mitzna's final approval. Ben-Gal said she was aware of some proposals being floated, and referred questions to Yatom, who was not immediately available for comment.

Sharon rejects unilateral moves and has also spoken out against dismantling any settlement. In previous governments, Sharon himself was responsible for creating and nurturing many of the settlements Mitzna would evacuate.

The Palestinians demand evacuation of all settlements, which they consider an encroachment on their land.

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