Palestinians Reject Barak Offer

Palestinian leaders today rejected a proposal from embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in which he offered to recognize an independent Palestinian state on half of the West Bank.

Barak’s offer avoided the crucial issues of control of Jerusalem and refugees’ right of return, sticking points that Palestinians have demanded be addressed.

Earlier this week, Barak reluctantly agreed to hold early general elections, pre-empting moves afoot in parliament to force a showdown.

Barak trails in polls, and many analysts predict he can not win re-election unless he reaches an agreement with the Palestinians to end the recent wave of violence. Yesterday, right-wing Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon announced he would run against Barak after rebuffing his offer to form a unity government. The elections will come about two years ahead of schedule, perhaps in April or May.

Barak said today’s peace offer was unrelated to election pressure.

“I never said that I’m going to speed things up in working toward an agreement, as a result of the elections,” he told Israeli journalists. “I also said we won’t reach an agreement close to election time that would be different from one reached without elections.”

Today’s offer would give Palestinians about 10 percent more land than they currently control. But the plan was not warmly received.

“The ideas which Mr. Barak claims could be a new initiative are not new at all,” said Yesser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian minister for information. “His main interest was and is to save himself, not to save the peace process.”

Meanwhile, the three-month uprising showed no signs of abating. Two Palestinians were killed today in clashes with Israeli troops.

Barak has been widely criticized at home as too willing to make concessions to the Palestinians, and now is increasingly seen as ineffective in ending the latest round of violence. More than 280 people, mostly young Palestinians, have been killed in a wave of bomb attacks and shootings that has pushed the longtime rivals to the brink of all-out war and threatened to ignite tensions throughout the Muslim world.