JERUSALEM (Jul. 12)
As Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat made what is being billed as an official return to Gaza this week, Israel and the PLO disagreed over how quickly to move to the next phase of Palestinian autonomy.
The differing timetables came to light as the two sides resumed negotiations on Palestinian self-rule this week in Cairo.
Arafat is calling for an accelerated pace in the expansion of self-rule beyond Gaza and Jericho. But Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is pointing to the complexity of the issues and is urging caution and a “step-by-step” approach.
The first phase of the declaration of principles, which is being deemed a success by both parties, provided for the withdrawal of Israeli military and civil authority from Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho.
This phase, which went into effect in May, ?riggered a five-year interim period of Palestinian self-government in those two areas.
Negotiations in the second stage, begun this week, are to focus on the transfer of authority in certain spheres to Palestinians in the Palestinian population centers in the rest of the West Bank.
At a later point in this stage, negotiators also will address the redeployment of Israel Defense Force troops away from those centers and general elections for a Palestinian self-governing council. Israeli redeployment is supposed to occur, according to the agreement, prior to the elections.
Israeli officials had originally urged the Palestinians to proceed with plans for holding elections as soon as possible.
But Israel, aware of the security problems involved in a withdrawal of its troops from the West Bank — which must take place on the eve of Palestinian elections — has lately been urging a slower timetable.
ISRAELI OFFICIALS FAVOR ‘SELF-RULE POCKETS’
A report in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot this week indicated that Israeli officials are now favoring “self-rule pockets” of Palestinian authority in West Bank towns without a full-scale withdrawal of Israeli troops from the area.
Negotiators in Cairo will also try to resolve outstanding issues from the first stage, including the size of the autonomous Jericho area and the release of Palestinian prisoners.
Meanwhile, the agreement calls for talks on the permanent status of the territories to “commence as soon as possible,” but no later than at the end of two years from the implementation of the declaration of principles signed last fall.
For their part, the Palestinians are keen to accelerate the timetable for the final-status discussions, which include the status of Jerusalem, the question of Jewish settlers and the matter of Palestinian refugees.
Only last week, Arafat called for a speeded-up negotiation of these thorny final-status issues.
He also called for an acceleration of the second stage of autonomy, charging that the process was advancing with “insufficient rhythm.”
At this stage, the agreement calls for the negotiation of a transfer of authority in the West Bank in five specific areas: education and culture, health, social welfare, direct taxation and tourism.
The Israelis are referring to this specific autonomy package as “early empowerment.”
Any other areas of control to be transferred must be consented to by both parties during the talks.
During the interim period, Israel is to retain responsibility for defending the territories against external threats as well as for the Jews and Jewish settlements. At the same time, the Palestinian authority is slated to establish a police force to assume, responsibility for security in the main Palestinian centers.
At this juncture the Palestinians appear to be seeking a more rapid implementation of a fuller autonomy than provided for in the “early empowerment plan in they towns such as Nablus, Jenin and Tulkarm.
Some sources say Israel may be amenable to the idea. Lending credence to this are reports that there are already uniformed Palestinian police carrying out some civil functions in Nablus with the apparent consent of Israel.
‘WE HAVE TO GO VERY SLOWLY’
But Oded Ben-Ami, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s spokesman, said any reports of Palestinian police operating outside of Gaza and Jericho are entirely unfounded and that Israel would not approve.
Israel has no interest in rushing the process, he said, emphasizing that Israel intends to focus only on early empowerment in the initial stages of the new round of talks.
“We have to go very slowly, step by step,” he said.
When Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met for two days in Cairo this week, they focused largely on procedural issues that will govern the future course of the talks. The talks are scheduled to continue next week in Cairo.
The two sides — led by Maj. Gen. Danny Rothschild for the Israelis and by chief Palestinian negotiator Nabil Sha’ath — have set out a two-pronged approach to their talks.
One committee will focus on issues left unresolved from the implementation of autonomy in Gaza and Jericho, such as the size of the Jericho district, the release of Palestinian prisoners still held by Israel and border crossings.
The second committee will tackle the issues of early empowerment.
A third group, to be joined by representatives from Jordan and Egypt, will discuss the issue of Palestinian refugees displaced by the 1967 Six-Day War.
Rabin and Arafat had agreed to the Cairo negotiating procedure when they met last week in Paris, where they, along with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, accepted a peace prize from UNESCO for the self-rule accord signed on the White House lawn last September.
While in Paris, Arafat renewed his vow to convene the 468-member Palestine National Council — the PLO’s parliament-in-exile — to revoke those sections of the PLO charter calling for the destruction of Israel.
Arafat had issued a similar promise 10 months ago, when he and Rabin exchanged letters of mutual recognition that paved the way for the signing of the self-rule accord last September.
In the diplomatic jockeying that led up to the resumption of this week’s talks in Cairo, Rabin responded to Arafat’s calls for accelerated progress in implementing self-rule by calling for patience.
Rabin noted that the talks for expanding self-rule to the West Bank will take longer than expected because the transfer of authority in Gaza and Jericho is so complex.
Rabin said the cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces in Gaza and Jericho has been surprisingly smooth. But he added that the transfer of authority in the civil sector has been problematic.
ARAFAT’S RETURN A LOW-KEY AFFAIR
Perhaps reflecting the enormous challenges facing him, Arafat’s return to Gaza on Tuesday was a low-key affair.
In stark contrast to the greeting he received last week during his five-day visit to Gaza and Jericho, only three Palestinian officials were on hand to greet him at the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza. And as his motorcade traveled to Gaza City, where he plans to take up residence, the crowds were far thinner than last week.
The Rabin government believes that given the squalid living conditions and widespread unemployment in Gaza, Arafat should first focus on shoring up civil affairs in the newly autonomous regions of Gaza and Jericho before extending autonomy to the rest of the West Bank.
Now that Arafat has returned to Gaza to live, said Ben-Ami, “we hope he’ll stop shuttling around the world and start running civilian (affairs) there. We have to see the first phase is working well and overcome the difficulties” before moving ahead.
Rabin has also pointed to the high number of Jewish settlements and military installations in the West Bank, saying they complicate the security matters that need to be negotiated for a transfer of authority to take place there.
Peres also reportedly told a Knesset committee this week there are a few problems posed by early empowerment that he is worried about.
The problems he cited include law-enforcement issues and the administration and funding of services in Palestinian population centers.
Peres greeted Arafat’s return to Gaza this week as a hopeful sign for the future.
But Peres was at the same time firm that Orient House, the PLO’s headquarters in Jerusalem, would not be permitted to become a center for the administration of Palestinian autonomy.
“The administrative center for those areas is either Gaza or Jericho,” Peres said. “But certainly not Jerusalem.’
(JTA correspondent Dvorah Getzler in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)