After months of deadlock over how to expand Palestinian self-rule, Israel and the Palestinians have set July I as a target date for completing talks on an Israeli redeployment in the West Bank.
The development came as U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher arrived in Israel for a shuttle mission aimed primarily at boosting another track of the peace process, the long-stalled Israeli-Syrian negotiations.
The announcement on Thursday of the July 1 target date came after a 90-minute meeting between foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat at the Erez checkpoint separating Israel from the Gaza Strip.
Peres hailed the agreement on a target date at a joint news conference with Arafat.
“I would consider it as a breakthrough in the second stage of our negotiations,” Peres said. “We have suggested, and I think it was also agreed, that all of us will aim to conclude the negotiations in between the 15th of June and the first of July.”
Peres said Israeli troops in the West Bank would not be redeployed before July 1.
During the meeting, the two sides reportedly agreed to a phased withdrawal of Israeli troops from Arab population center in the West Bank in exchange for a Palestinian crackdown on armed groups operating in the self-rule zones.
There was no indication when Palestinian elections would be held.
While Peres and Arafat exchanged smiles and jokes during the conference, the Palestinians adopted a more moderate tone in describing Thursday’s achievements.
Arafat said he would “wait and see” before declaring the deadlock in their talks broken.
He said he hoped the new timetable for negotiations would help speed implementation of the next phase of the self-rule accord.
Self-rule began in Gaza and the West Bank enclave of Jericho in May. The self- rule accord signed by Israel and the PLO in September 1993 set July 1994 as the date for holding Palestinian elections and pulling Israeli troops from Arab population centers.
But expansion of self-rule to the rest of the West Bank has been delayed by Israeli security concerns in the wake of repeated terrorist attacks by Islamic fundamentalists, as well as by disagreements over the makeup and powers of a Palestinian elected council.
Arafat vowed the Palestinian Authority would crack down on terrorists operating from the self-rule areas.
“We will not be late in confronting those people who are carrying out these attacks and bringing them to the proper courts,” he said.
Peres said Israel had agreed on a number of confidence- building gestures, including the transfer of five more areas of responsibility to the Palestinians throughout the West Bank, mostly in the economic area.
The Palestinians are already responsible for education, health, taxation, tourism and social welfare in the West Bank.
Peres called the move a “second early empowerment” and said he saw no reason why the transfer of these responsibilities over West Bank affairs could not take place before July 1.
Israel also agreed to a further easing of the closure of the territories, a move that will allow several thousand more Palestinian workers to enter Israel from Gaza and the West Bank, bringing the daily total to about 21,000 people.
Israel had imposed a total closure in the territories in the wake of a double suicide bombing near Netanya in January that claimed the lives of 21 Israelis.
The terrorist attack also led to the suspension of negotiations for the release of Palestinian prisoners and the opening of safe passage routes between the Jericho and Gaza.
Peres and Arafat agreed on Thursday to resume those negotiations.
The two sides also agreed to improve procedure at checkpoints and to ease import regulations that had been imposed on the Palestinians in the wake of terror attacks.
They also agreed to set up two committees, one on military issues and one on civilian, that will meet at regular intervals.
The two sides noted that a meeting that had originally been scheduled for next week between Arafat and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin will take place instead in about two or three weeks.
The Peres-Arafat news conference took place as Christopher flew to Israel from Egypt for a round of shuttle diplomacy aimed at pushing forward the deadlocked negotiations between Israel and Syria.
Peres reportedly rushed from his meeting with Arafat to Ben-Gurion Airport, where he boarded Christopher’s plane to brief the secretary on the meeting before they met with reporters.
Christopher’s visit was his first to the region this year. In 1994, he made six rounds of shuttle diplomacy, keyed mainly to breathing life into the Israeli- Syrian negotiations.
Speaking at Ben-Gurion Airport, Christopher said he welcomed the latest developments in the Israeli-PLO talks.
Regarding the Syrian track, he said there was “no turning back” in the peace process, and pledged American support to the negotiating efforts.
“The parties face difficult decisions there and we’ll be talking about how those decisions might be taken and how we can accelerate the process,” Christopher said.
Christopher later met in Tel Aviv with Rabin, who expressed concern over the fact that Syria still offers safe haven to terrorist groups.
At the same time, the prime minister stressed Israel’s commitment to the talks with Damascus. He voiced the hope that direct negotiations, which were suspended in December, could be renewed soon.
“I would like to make it clear, we are capable of achieving peace with Syria,” Rabin said.
Israeli expectations that Christopher’s visit would bring a breakthrough with Syria have been low.
The talks have been deadlocked over a Syrian insistence that Israel commit itself to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Israel, agreeing only to a phased withdrawal, has said it first wants Syria to spell out the nature of the peace it envisions.
Last year’s mediation efforts by Christopher failed to break the deadlock.
Christopher arrived in Israel from Cairo, where he held talks with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
The two were unable to bridge their differences over the issue of nuclear weapons in the region.
Egypt has repeatedly indicated it may not sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty when it comes up for renewal in April if Israel does not sign as well.
Israel, which is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons, said it would not sign the treaty as long as some states in the region remain committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.
The United States has stood behind the Israeli position.
After a two-hour meeting between Christopher and Mubarak, the two sides held their ground, but left the door open to compromise.
Christopher told reporters in Egypt that the United States understood Egypt’s concern over the issue. But he added that the best approach to a comprehensive regional peace was one that proceeded “step by step.”
In Washington, a National Security Council official said Thursday that while the United States would ultimately like to see Israel included in the treaty, such a goal is not realistic now.
“As a practical question, to demand today commitments by Israel on NPT adherence, minus a comprehensive peace, minus arrangements for verification, in simply not reasonable,” said David Satterfield, director of Near Eastern and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council.
He was speaking at a meeting of the Middle East Policy Council, which is headed by George McGovern.
Meanwhile, Mubarak would not back down from his demand that Israel sign the nuclear pact. However, he sought to smooth over the differences with Jerusalem.
Responding to reports that Egypt had adopted a newly hostile attitude toward Israel, Mubarak said, “We are not entering an era of cold peace. We have relations with Israel and we are cooperating in the search for peace.”