Israel Says Upcoming Deadline on Troop Pullout Not Sacrosanct

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has angered Palestinian negotiators by saying that the Dec. 13 deadline for reaching an agreement on Israeli troop withdrawals from the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho is not “engraved in stone.”

But-Israeli officials said Sunday that they expect an agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization will be reached more or less on schedule.

The officials spoke after Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting, at which Rabin and senior defense officials briefed the ministers on the current state of the negotiations for implementing the Palestinian self-rule accord that was signed in Washington in September.

Their appraisal of the negotiations, which are being held in Cairo, followed PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s negative assessment over the weekend regarding the state of the negotiations.

A visibly irritated Arafat described the negotiations as “deadlocked” during a visit to Sweden.

During a news conference there, he described a progress report on the negotiations from chief Palestinian negotiator Nabil Sha’ath as “completely negative.”

But Arafat said that the eighth round of negotiations on implementation of the accord would nonetheless resume this week in Cairo.

Arafat said the main problem was that Israel sought to “redeploy” its forces in Gaza, rather than “withdraw” them as stipulated in the self-rule accord.

But in fact, both the terms “withdraw” and “redeploy” are used in the declaration of principles signed in Washington.

Article 13 stipulates that “a redeployment of Israeli military forces in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will take place, in addition to the withdrawal of Israeli forces” from Gaza and Jericho.

This clearly indicates that Israeli forces are to remain in sections of Gaza after the “withdrawal.”

MISSED DEADLINE WOULD BE ‘BAD SIGN’

Indeed, the declaration of principles was signed with the clear proviso that “settlements (and) Israelis” are to be outside the purview of the Palestinian self-government and police force soon to be established in Gaza and Jericho.

Countering Arafat’s charges, Rabin said that the Dec. 13 deadline for the start of Israeli troop withdrawals from Gaza and Jericho is not sacrosanct and that a delay would not be disastrous.

But both sides are plainly anxious to conclude the implementation talks successfully and within the allotted time frame — if only to demonstrate to their respective constituencies that the agreement between them is proceeding according to plan.

Palestinian leader Faisal Husseini said Sunday in Amman that while the deadline was indeed “not sacred,” it would be a “bad sign” if the two sides failed to meet it.

Husseini added that the Israeli side was “dragging its feet” in the negotiations.

Ziad Abu-Ziad, a Jerusalem lawyer who is an adviser to the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks, announced Sunday that he was suspending his own participation in the negotiations in protest over what he said was a lack of progress in the matter of Palestinian prisoner releases.

Ziad has served as head of the Palestinian delegation to the working group dealing with creating confidence-building measures between Israel and the Palestinians.

Commenting on the issue of prisoner releases, Ziad told reporters in eastern Jerusalem, “The Israelis do not realize how sensitive this matter is.”

He said that no Palestinian leader would sign a final agreement on Gaza and Jericho without a firm Israeli commitment on prisoner releases.

ASSAD TORPEDOING PROGRESS

On Oct. 25, Israel released more than 600 Palestinian prisoners in an effort to build Arab support for the accord. But the Palestinians are insisting on much larger prisoner releases.

Ziad told Israel Television that another sticking point in the Cairo talks is the lack of agreement on the size of the Jericho area to fall under Palestinian control.

He cited the presence of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip as the chief cause of the difficulties in the negotiations.

Police Minister Moshe Shahal has meanwhile accused Syrian President Hafez Assad of actively undermining every effort by Israel to advance the peace process with other Arab countries.

Whenever progress is achieved with any Arab country, Shahal said, Assad telephones the leaders of that country and demands that they rescind whatever agreement or understanding they have reached with Israel.

Shahal painted this bleak picture during a lecture over the weekend to a public relations and media forum in Tel Aviv.

“If there is no agreement with Syria,” he said, “Assad will do all he can to torpedo any evolving agreements with anyone else.”

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