The July 1 deadline set by Israel and the Palestinians for agreeing on the next phase of their peace process passed without an agreement over the weekend, but negotiations continued and officials on both sides remained optimistic that an agreement would soon be reached.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestinian Authority, met long into the night Saturday to resolve their differences, but they remained locked in discord at the Erez checkpoint, outside the Gaza Strip.
Still, negotiations continued in several subcommittees simultaneously, and Arafat and Peres stood poised to meet again during the week for further high- level horse-trading.
Informed observers spoke of July 17 as the unofficial new target date.
They said Peres is pressing for another White House signing ceremony, as are some in the Clinton administration.
The so-called interim agreement, if reached, would usher in the second stage of Palestinian self-rule. The first stage involved the beginning of Palestinian autonomy in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank enclave of Jericho in May 1994.
The next phase would provide for a significant but partial redeployment of Israeli troops in the West Bank during the fall, and the holding of Palestinian elections throughout the West Bank and Gaza, probably in early November.
Under the original Declaration of Principles signed in Washington in September 1993, “further redeployments” of Israeli forces are to take place after the election and the establishment of a Palestinian Council.
The key issue believed to be holding up a deal now is that of security in areas of the West Bank that would be held jointly by Israel and the Palestinian Authority after the initial redeployment.
The redeployment would remove the Israel Defense Force from a number of major Palestinian towns, including Nablus, Kalkilya, Jenin and Tulkarm, and possibly, sections of Ramallah.
Hebron, where Jewish settlers live in the heart of an Arab city, is not included among the towns from which the IDF would decamp.
The Israeli troops would take up new positions, some in strategic areas along the Jordan River border or along the pre-1967 border — some inside Israel and some in areas of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
These latter areas would remain solely under Israeli control. the evacuated towns would come under the control of the Palestinian police, except in case of so-called “hot pursuit,” when then IDF would have the right to re-enter them to track down terrorists.
At issue is the role of the Palestinian police in the “in between areas” – – large rural districts that are full of Palestinian villages, many of them adjacent to Israeli settlements, or roads used both by Palestinians and settlers.
Under the agreement, there are certain to be some joint patrols on key roads. But overall, the IDF is to retain security control of these areas, and wants to keep a firm hand over the Palestinian police’s activities there.
The IDF demands, for instance, the right to be consulted each time a Palestinian police unit moves from one village to another. But the Palestinians are balking at these demands.
Other issues still unresolved, but being left for last-minute haggling between the top leaders of both sides, include: * The size of the Palestinian Council to be elected. The number will most likely fall between 40 and 70 members. * The right of residents of eastern Jerusalem to run in the elections. The two sides are likely to reach a compromise that would enabled only those residents who have second addresses outside the municipal limits to run. * A timetable for “further redeployments” after the elections. Israel is refusing to commit itself at this stage to dates for further pullbacks, demanding the right to test the effect of this first round of redeployment before planning further moves. * Control of the areas immediately surrounding the evacuated towns.
Over the weekend, Israel made it clear to the Palestinians that it plans to release up to 2,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails between now and the time of the Palestinian elections in November. The men to be freed will not include any jailed for involvement in terror killings of Israelis.
In all, about 6,000 prisoners are jailed at this time. Israel released thousands after the Declaration of Principles was signed, but thousands more have since been detained.
Many of the prisoners have been staging a hunger strike for some two weeks to demand their freedom as part of the peace process.
Their strike has triggered street demonstrations and much violence in several West Bank cities.
But Israel’s signal that it would release significant numbers has eased the situation somewhat. While the prisoners apparently ended their hunger strike early in the week, there were mixed reports about whether hundreds had again resumed it.
As the Israeli-Palestinian track moved toward a new phase, there was also some cautious optimism this week on the Israeli-Syrian track after last week’s meetings in Washington between the chiefs of staff of the two armies.
From Lt. Gben. Amnon Shahak’s report to the prime minister and the Cabinet, it emerged Monday that Syria is prepared to accept the idea of unequal demilitarization zones on the two sides of a new border as part of a peace deal. Shahak’s Syrian counterpart, Lt. Gen. Hikmat Shihabi, reportedly proposed a 5-3 ratio for demilitarization of areas.
But Israeli sources said a 5-3 proportion was entirely unacceptable. Given the Syrians’ topographical advantage once Israel pulls back from the strategic Golan Heights, Israel is demanding a much deeper demilitarization, as well as deeper limitation-of-forces zones, on the Syrian side than on the Israeli side.
Nevertheless, the Syrian general’s readiness to contemplate an unequal situation in this key area is considered a significant and encouraging development.
Still, the talks in Washington — to be followed by a shuttling round in the region this week by U.S. peace negotiator Dennis Ross, and additional military talks later in the month — highlighted the vast gaps that still exist between the two countries’ concepts of a post-peace security regime.