Door Remains Ajar to Palestinian Vote in Territories

DESPITE their publicly proclaimed rejection of an Israeli plan to hold elections in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinians there are not ruling them out as part of a broader process involving the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The Israeli proposal put forward in Washington last week by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir calls for ``free and democratic elections'' in the territories ``to produce a delegation to negotiate an interim period of self-governing administration'' by Palestinians.

This formula has been flatly rejected in the territories. Palestinian spokesmen argue that elections under Israeli rule cannot by definition be free and democratic. The principle of elections, however, has not been ruled out by leaders in the territories, who have proposed a series of conditions.

``If elections are part of a comprehensive peace plan, with steps accepted by the PLO in advance, agreed upon between the PLO and the Israeli government, then we might reconsider it,'' says Radwan Abu Ayyash, head of the Arab Journalists Association.

Sari Nusseibeh of Bir Zeit University says elections could be considered by Palestinians if they ``are part of a bigger scheme, and it is specified in that scheme that Israel is to withdraw, that there will be an international conference to which the PLO is invited, through which the Palestinians can achieve independence and in order to get there, a program would be worked out with a specific timetable for various phases.''

Shamir's election proposal, other Palestinians say, is an attempt to produce an alternative Palestinian leadership to the PLO, and drive a wedge between Palestinians inside the territories and their brothers abroad. They charge that the idea is a gimmick designed to divert international attention from the real need to start negotiation with the PLO in an international peace conference.

What is needed, according to Dr. Nusseibeh and other Palestinian spokesmen, is clear linkage between any interim arrangements, such as elections, and negotiations on a final settlement.

Palestinian interest in elections has been reported by Defense Ministry officials, who have initiated a series of meetings between military government officers and prominent Palestinian activists in the territories.

According to the officials, Palestinians have in these closed discussions expressed an interest in plans for elections proposed by Shamir and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Palestinians have asked questions on the details of such elections, such as under what supervision they would be held, and whether they would include Arab residents of East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after capturing it from Jordan in the 1967 war.

These details are still to be worked out by the Israeli government following Shamir's return from the United States. The US administration has said it wants to flesh out the premier's proposals, and it will be up to Israeli officials to spell out in the coming weeks precisely what kind of elections they foresee.

At the same time, the US will have to pursue the idea with the PLO, packaging it in such a way that could meet Palestinian demands.

The PLO has flatly rejected elections under Israeli rule. But there is reportedly pressure within the movement and from Palestinians in the territories to come forward with constructive counter-proposals to avoid appearing intransigent.

From Cairo, Jane Friedman reports: A PLO spokesman said yesterday the organization is willing to consider elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but only if Israel first accepts United Nations resolutions calling for an exchange of land for peace as a basis for negotiations, as well as the right of Palestinians to live in their own state.

``The Palestinians want elections, and the PLO wants elections,'' said Bassam Abu Sharif, a close adviser to PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. ``But we want to clarify whether Shamir accepts [UN Security Council Resolutions] 242 and 338. Does the Israeli government accept the right of Palestinians to live in a Palestinian state? If we got favorable answers, everything, the modalities, would be negotiable.''

Abu Sharif added that elections should not be for a negotiating team but either for Palestinian legislators or heads of municipalities. They, in turn, would select a team of negotiators to talk with the Israelis.

Of the new United States administration, Abu Sharif said that President Bush's statement, calling for the end to the Israeli occupation, was ``positive and a political stand on which a settlement could be based.''

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