Rabin Hints Israel and PLO May Fail to Reach Agreement by April Deadline

Although Israeli and Palestine Liberation Organization negotiators have resumed their talks at the Sinai border town of Taba, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has left open the possibility that the two sides may not be able to reach an agreement by the April 13 deadline for the pullback of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho.

“The basis for the target date is ability to reach a signed, orderly agreement,” Rabin told Israel Radio on Monday. “Each stage depends on negotiations, agreement, signing and then implementation.”

“The dates,” he said, “they are trends, target dates. They are not decisive, they are not sacred.” The Dec. 13 date for the phased start of the troop withdrawal “was not sacred, and neither is the April 13 date.”

Considerable disagreements over security issues have stymied the two sides. The disagreements led to a breakup two weeks ago of negotiations, which had moved to Cairo to avoid the glare and distraction of the media.

The two sides have given widely different interpretations of the talks. While the Israelis claimed they had reached a broad agreement, the PLO denied any meeting of the minds had occurred.

Nabil Sha’ath, the chief Palestinian negotiator, told reporters Monday that it had been “a useful day” of talks. But he warned that missing the April deadline could have a devastating effect on the negotiations.

“If we are going to play havoc with this second date, we are playing havoc with the whole agreements,” Sha’ath said.

Sha’ath spoke of the prospect of reaching an agreement within two weeks. But a spokesman for the Israeli delegation, Ami Gluska, said it would take much longer.

Amnon Shahak, the Israel Defense Force deputy chief of staff who is heading the negotiating team, steered clear of the issue. He told reporters only that “if we work, we’ll get there eventually. It will take as long as it needs to take.”

Shahak spoke carefully, saying the talks in Taba resumed “on the basis of the understanding reached at Cairo and of the declaration of principles (which forms the basis of the self-rule accord).”

Despite PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s denial two weeks ago that any agreement had been reached in Cairo, Israel affirms that the Taba talks will proceed on the basis of “understandings” reached in the Egyptian capital.

Those understandings provided for joint Israeli-Palestinian border controls between Gaza and Egypt and between Jericho and Jordan.

The Cairo understandings also reportedly went into detail on the much-debated size of Jericho’s borders. The two sides reportedly specified that the Jericho enclave would be some 21 square miles, from Deir el-Kuruntul to the west to Mahru Musa Alami on the east.

According to a report in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Rabin instructed the Israeli delegation Sunday not to deviate from the understandings reached in Cairo.

The Taba talks, which are being held by six delegates from each side, were scheduled to continue indefinitely until an agreement is reached.

Meanwhile, on Monday, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres successfully led a government counterattack in the Knesset against a no-confidence motion introduced by the National Religious Party and the nationalist Tsomet party.

The final vote was 57 against, 43 in favor, with two abstentions.

A hot point flashed when Agriculture Minister Ya’acov Tsur and Knesset member Yossi Katz, both of the Labor Party, clearly implied that the accord with the PLO would likely lead to the eventual creation of an independent Palestinian state.

“I respect them,” Tsomet Knesset member Gonen Segev said. “At least they had the guts to tell the truth.”

Peres shot back, “We will tell the truth, we will lead the nation to true peace, and we will not be frightened by you.”

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