Peres call for referendum irks Likud and Palestinians

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Shimon Peres' proposal to hold a national referendum before signing a permanent settlement agreement with the Palestinians has drawn sharp criticism from the Israeli right and from the Palestinian Authority.

Peres' surprise announcement this week marked the first time that an Israeli leader offered to bring the results of the final-status negotiations with the Palestinians before the Israeli people.

It parallels Peres' promise to hold a referendum before signing any peace agreement with Syria.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Peres' opponent in the May 29 national elections, immediately condemned the declaration.

"I am puzzled by the attempts by Mr. Peres to bypass the real referendum," Netanyahu told Army Radio after the prime minister made the surprise announcement Monday. "A real referendum is the elections."

Likud Knesset member Uzi Landau charged Peres with attempting to avoid giving the Israeli public a clear picture of his peace policies before the elections.

"What Peres wishes is to have an open check to run with whatever policy he would like to push forward but not tell the public in Israel what he has on his mind," Landau told Israel Radio.

Palestinian leaders also criticized the idea, saying that it represented a bad-faith negotiating posture.

"It completely goes against everything that was agreed upon" in earlier accords with the Jewish state, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat told reporters in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian Authority official Freih Abu Medein described the idea as a "death blow" to the peace process.

Peres, speaking Tuesday to reporters during a state visit to the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, said he was surprised at the Palestinian reaction.

"There was no agreement with the Palestinians on how we would ratify the accord," he said. "We did not promise them that it would be done in Parliament."

Peres first raised the issue of a referendum Monday, during a flight to the Persian Gulf state of Oman.

He told reporters that he would seek the mandate of the Labor Party to negotiate a permanent settlement with the Palestinians, and then take the agreement to the Israeli people for ratification through a referendum.

The final-status negotiations with the Palestinians on such issues as Jerusalem, borders and the fate of Jewish settlements are scheduled to begin in May.

Israeli officials have said the talks would probably start on time, but substantive issues would not be addressed until after the Israeli elections.

Peres' proposal came as both the Likud and Labor parties have launched election campaigns promising Israelis peace with security.

This refrain has a timely ring for Israelis, shaken over the past few months by a string of suicide bombings that killed 58 victims in 10 days, a sudden jolt after a relatively quiet seven months.

Hamas, which carried out the bombings, vowed Tuesday to renew suicide attacks against Israel.

Peres made the referendum proposal in the wake of charges by Likud that he was reaching secret bargains with the Palestinian leadership.

The Likud launched its election campaign earlier this year with the slogan, "Peres Will Divide Jerusalem" — a claim the prime minister has heatedly denied.

Meanwhile, Labor Party officials were supportive of the referendum.

Peres called for the referendum "in order to give a hint to the people of the state of Israel that every final decision will be taken by the people of the state of Israel in a democratic way," said Hagai Meirom, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

In New York, Tourism Minister Uzi Baram said such an initiative would be a useful way "to calm down Israeli public opinion."

"I think he can get approval," said Baram, a longtime vocal dove who was the top vote-getter in last month's Labor Party primaries, second only to Peres.

But, Baram added, if the measure did fail at the polls, the government "would have to call for new elections."

At a media briefing in New York, Baram brushed aside a question about the repercussions of surprising Arafat, who has called the idea a violation of the Israeli-Palestinian accords.

But Baram did say he believed that the "problem of the closure" of the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the series of Hamas bombings "creates a very complicated situation for Arafat," which, in turn, could affect Peres.

Peres has made continuation of the peace process contingent upon a timely revocation of the portions of the Palestine National Covenant calling for Israel's destruction.

But that revocation, which must pass the Palestine National Council by a two-thirds vote, is looking less and less certain as resentment builds over the security crackdown and resulting shortages of basic supplies.

Baram, who has indicated his future interest in the prime ministership, said the Labor Party list had more balance than Likud's to satisfy Israelis "who want the peace process but want security."

He said the Likud's list is top-heavy with right-wingers, while Labor has military generals such as Deputy Defense Minister Ori Orr, Health Minister Ephraim Sneh and Foreign Minister Ehud Barak, along with prominent doves such as Baram, Interior Minister Haim Ramon and Yossi Beilin, minister without portfolio.

"It's a better combination," said Baram said of Labor's list.