Palestinian elections now set for January

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

JERUSALEM — Palestinian elections, once set for next April, could be held as early as January.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres held talks with Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat at the Erez Junction Saturday night to discuss the Palestinians' first-ever democratic elections, which are scheduled under the just-signed Oslo II accord.

Other issues on the Arafat-Peres agenda, according to the Palestinians, included:

*The schedule for the prisoner release — some 1,000 to 1,200 are set to be released in the next few days — and Israel's decision to deny pardons to two Palestinian women prisoners, which prompted a protest where 21 women refused to go free.

*Expanding the Jericho autonomous area. Arafat held up signing the Cairo accords last year in a last-minute public row over this issue, and Israel promised in writing to discuss it.

*Scheduling the timetable for redeployment of Israel Defense Force troops. A row was avoided in Washington, D.C., when Israel agreed 15 minutes before the signing ceremony to move the beginning of redeployment up from February to this month, completing redeployment from six towns by December and from Hebron by March 1996.

*Issuing permits for former Palestinian residents who wish to return to their homes under Palestinian rule.

*Establishing a joint committee to oversee implementation of the agreement in all its aspects. The committee will be composed of heads of the existing economic, civil affairs, joint security and cooperation committees.

Palestinian Authority Planning and International Cooperation Minister Nabil Sha'ath said the most important issue was "scheduling and implementing the agreement."

Uri Savir, chief negotiator with the Palestinians and Foreign Ministry director-general, told the New York-based Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Friday of last week that the elections would definitely take place Jan. 20.

According to a source who recently met with Arafat, the PLO leader also cited that date, but held out the possibility of Jan. 13.

Arafat is believed to want elections earlier than the planned date of April, which would follow the scheduled IDF pullback from most of Hebron.

A source who met Arafat said the PLO leader's calculation is derived at least partly from an interest in setting in motion a pre-arranged timetable that guarantees that the next Israel "further redeployment" occurs safely before the Israeli election in November 1996.

The Palestinian election is also planned for a Saturday, so as to minimize the prospects that Shabbat-observant opponents of the peace process will seek to disrupt the balloting.

In his remarks to the Presidents Conference, Savir said Israel could have imposed stiffer terms on Arafat, but this would be counterproductive.

According to a statement released by Savir's office, he told the group that "the balance of power between us and the Palestinians is such that we can achieve almost anything."

But Israel "must be careful not to twist [his] arm too much, because if the agreement is perceived by the public opinion of the other side as being humiliating, it will not be honored," Savir added.

"You cannot impose agreements, but you can only impose yourself. We did this for 27 years, and we failed miserably. Therefore, there must be internal balance in the agreement."

Savir also called for American Jewish support for the peace process and criticized those who have tried to derail the process.

"I don't believe anyone can undermine the basic concept of 47 years, namely American Jewry supports the democratically elected government of Israel," he said. "Whoever undermines this undermines the foundations of relations between Israel and Jewry."

Outside the meeting a handful of settlers from the Gaza Strip demonstrated against the agreement, waving Israeli flags.