Barak Proposes Land Deal; Arafat Rejects Offer

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the most detailed description yet of his peace plan today, saying he would recognize an independent Palestinian state but would put off the explosive issue of control over Jerusalem.

In an animated speech to Israeli news editors, Barak spoke of a “phased agreement “ and said he was prepared to recognize a Palestinian state. He said the issue of sovereignty over Jerusalem and the return of Palestinian refugees should be put off for “one or two or three years.”

But as widely expected, the Palestinians rejected Barak’s proposal. An aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat today said that for a deal to be accepted, any accord had to cover all issues including that of Jerusalem.

“There must be a solution to all permanent status issues, foremost of which are Jerusalem and [Palestinian] refugees,” Nabil Abu Rdaineh said in Gaza today.

He added that a permanent peace deal necessitated “the return of all Palestinian rights and implementing United Nations resolutions.“

Barak’s announcement came as the Israeli prime minister prepares to face an early election with his popularity ratings at an all-time low after two months of violence between Palestinians and Israelis.

The beleaguered prime minister is widely regarded as needing some kind of peace deal to have any chance of leading his Labor party to victory in the polls.

Plummeting Popularity

A poll published by the daily Yedioth Ahronoth showed Barak would lose by a large margin to his right-wing predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, if general elections were held today.

The poll gave Netanyahu 51 percent of the vote, compared with 37 percent for Barak. Twelve percent of the 503 respondents were undecided.

Most political analysts agree that Barak’s political survival depends largely on whether he can forge a peace deal with the Palestinians prior to an early election that now seems certain following his dramatic about-turn on Tuesday, when he backed an opposition move to dissolve the parliament.

Barak today sought to shore up his support by proposing a deal with the Palestinians that would give Palestinians a state, annex Jewish settlements to Israel and delay negotiations on Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees for up to three years.

But the Palestinians have already ruled out another interim agreement after what they saw as Israel’s failure to honor its obligations under the 1993-94 Oslo accords.

Addressing a gathering of Arab ambassadors in Tunis on Wednesday, Arafat said that the Palestinian people would not flinch in the face of the “Israeli war machine and economic blockade.”

He also said his people would not give up on their claim to Israeli-occupied east Jerusalem despite the other side’s overwhelming military superiority.

Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 war, but its subsequent annexation of the city has not been recognized by the international community.

Heavy Gun Battles

Despite Barak’s reassuring noises, peace prospects in the region have rarely looked gloomier. Israeli troops shot dead a 17-year-old Palestinian student and wounded three others in the West Bank, witnesses and medical sources said.

The shooting south of Bethlehem raised to at least 286 the number of people, mostly Palestinians, who have been killed in the uprising against Israeli occupation.

The Israeli army said soldiers had fired rubber-coated metal bullets in clashes in the area and knew of no deaths.

Fighting continued overnight in several parts of the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli army said its troops had engaged in firefights with Palestinian gunmen in the divided West Bank town of Hebron and near Palestinian-ruled Ramallah.

It said there had also been a heavy gun battle near the Neve Dekalim Jewish settlement in the southern Gaza Strip and Palestinian gunmen had fired at military posts on the border with Egypt and at a convoy of settlers’ cars.

A hospital in Gaza said two Palestinians, aged 14 and 20, had died on Wednesday from injuries sustained in Gaza clashes with troops earlier this week, hospitals and relatives said.

Lifting Security Restrictions

Israeli police today said they would partially lift security restrictions to allow all Palestinian Muslims from Jerusalem to attend Friday prayers at the al-Aqsa mosque over the holy month of Ramadan.

The decision to end age restrictions barring young Palestinian men from worshipping at the mosque did not however end a ban on Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza from entering Jerusalem to pray at the site.

Israel has barred younger Palestinians from attending Friday al-Aqsa prayers for the past two months following the violence sparked off by Israeli right wing leader Ariel Sharon’s controversial visit to the site. Known as the Temple Mount to Jews, the site has been a sensitive zone as it is considered sacred to both Arabs and Jews.

International Diplomatic Maneuvers

On the international diplomatic front, Israeli media today reported that Egypt is trying to arrange a Mideast summit next week between Barak and Arafat in an effort to end the hostilities and restart peace talks.

Barak and Arafat have held only one face-to-face meeting since the violence broke out at the end of September, and have spoken only rarely by telephone.

Egypt is proposing that the two leaders meet either in Cairo, the Egyptian capital, or in Amman, Jordan, according to Israel radio and the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

Neither Israeli nor Palestinian officials offered any immediate comment today on the possibility of a summit.’s Sue Masterman in Vienna , The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.