Israeli, Arab and U.S. Officials Meet for Final Push on Autonomy Agreement

A high-level meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat was scheduled to take place in Cairo on Thursday.

The meeting is intended to clear up the remaining issues holding up the signing of a final agreement for the implementation of Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho.

Speculation has been running high that the signing will take place soon. Christopher’s presence in Cairo this week – coming as part of a new round of Middle East shuttle diplomacy – is seen as a further hopeful sign that he will help the Israelis and PLO bridge the last gaps separating them.

Christopher was expected to leave Cairo for Israel on Thursday night.

Peres and Environment Minister Yossi Sarid are expected to remain in the Egyptian capital over the weekend to keep a close eye on the final stages of the autonomy talks.

Prior to their departure from Israel, Peres and Sarid were to confer with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was due back Wednesday night from a trip to Russia.

In Cairo, it was announced that agreement had been reached on the release of some 3,500 Palestinian prisoners still remaining in Israeli hands.

But Sarid, restating a long-held Israeli position, emphasized Wednesday that Palestinians convicted of killing Israelis will not be among those released.

For the first time since the negotiations began in Cairo, the Israeli team will be spending the weekend in the Egyptian capital rather than returning home. The team usually returned to Israel for the Sabbath and then flew back to Cairo on Sunday.

They will be spending the coming weekend in the Egyptian capital in an effort to give negotiators additional time to move the talks to a conclusion.

The head of the Israeli delegation, army Deputy Chief of Staff Gen. Amnon Shahak, was due to return home on Wednesday evening to join the meeting between Rabin, Peres and Sarid and to report on progress made this week.

He was then to return to Cairo for what is hoped will be the final push.

Palestinian delegation head Nabil Sha’ath said Wednesday that the two sides had reached the stage of drafting a final agreement.

But he would not say when he thought the signing ceremony would take place.

According to Israel Radio, Sha’ath brought in a team of international legal consultants to help with the final draft of an agreement.

Sha’ath reportedly said that he brought the team to Cairo to ensure that the text of the agreement would not create confusion or problems in the future.

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