Prime Minister Ehud Barak said tonight he wants to postpone implementation of the Wye River accord between Israel and the Palestinians and instead wrap it into discussions about a broader, final settlement.
The proposal had been floated in recent days by Barak's lieutenants but was laid out tonight for the first time by the new prime minister himself. It already has been rejected by Palestinian leaders, who insist it is time for action -- particularly Israeli withdrawals agreed at Wye River -- after weeks of optimistic talk since Barak was elected May 17 on a platform of reviving peace negotiations.
In his first interview with Israeli television since taking office, Barak reiterated his administration's promise to stand by the Wye River agreement, an accord reached last October at a resort near Washington then shelved by former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. However, he also said he would prefer, if the Palestinians agree, to delay implementing that agreement and to move directly into "final status" discussions aimed at settling all outstanding issues and possibly laying foundations for an independent Palestinian state.
"The Wye agreement will be implemented," he declared. "The issue that [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat and I will discuss is whether we can together . . . find a way to combine the implementation of the Wye agreement with a final status agreement."
Barak spoke out, on Israel's Channel 1, as he headed into his first meeting as prime minister with Arafat, scheduled for Sunday. Although Arafat has expressed eagerness to work with Barak, he seemed unlikely to welcome Barak's suggestion.
A final status agreement, encompassing thorny issues like the future of Jerusalem and the status of millions of Palestinian refugees abroad, could take months if not years. Postponing the withdrawals agreed on at Wye River would leave Israel in charge of a greater portion of the West Bank in the meantime.
Although Arafat was silent, other Palestinian leaders said today, as they have before, that they expect Barak to comply immediately with the promises Israel made under Wye -- namely a handover of more land to the Palestinian Authority and release of a number of Palestinian prisoners.
"We won't be taken for a ride," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters in the West Bank town of Jericho. "We don't have neon signs on top of our heads reading `stupid.' "
Noting that peace talks have been essentially suspended for seven months, since Netanyahu called elections in December, and that Barak himself has taken nearly two months since his victory at the polls to form a cabinet, Erekat said it is time for him to move beyond positive statements and start to act.
Barak "needed time to form a government and work out a strong coalition, and he certainly has taken lots of time," said Erekat. "Time is a precious commodity now, and we have to move immediately. . . . I hope no time will be wasted."
Barak has left several issues unresolved as he formed his cabinet, including his exact plans for the Wye agreement, and his position on issues like Jewish settlements on lands captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. He continued that close-to-the-vest strategy in statements today following a morning meeting in Alexandria, Egypt, with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the first of a half-dozen meetings with heads of state he is expected to hold during his first two weeks in office, including one with President Clinton.
That diplomatic blitz is the first step in an ambitious agenda that envisions reaching final agreements with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon in what one top cabinet official said would be "about one or two years." With agreements already in place with Egypt and Jordan, that would put Israel at peace with its immediate neighbors for the first time since its creation in 1948.
Peppered with questions today about his specific plans, Barak deferred, saying it will only be after this first round of meetings, including nearly a week's stay in Washington, that he will "have the map" of how he wants to proceed.
"Give the man some time," Mubarak counseled from his podium next to Barak's at the Alexandria meeting.
CAPTION: Barak speaks at a news conference after meeting with Egypt's Mubarak.