Israel and the Palestinians are one step closer to new agreement on the next phase of Palestinian self-rule.
Although the originally agreed upon July 1 target came and went over the weekend, negotiations continued feverishly.
And after their second meeting in as many days, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat emerged Tuesday apparently having resolved some key areas of disagreement with regard to security arrangements.
Officials set a new target day of July 25 for concluding an agreement.
The so-called second-stage interim agreement would usher in the next phase of Palestinian self-rule. The first stage involved the establishment 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.
In their meeting Tuesday, the two sides apparently agreed in principle on specifics of an Israeli redeployment and the division of security responsibilities in the West Bank. However, no specific dates for redeployment and elections were mentioned.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told a Cabinet meeting Wednesday morning that Arafat had accepted Israel’s security demands.
Both Rabin and Peres emphasized that Israel would continue to maintain overall responsibility for all security-related matters in the West Bank.
This emphasis was seen as particularly important in the wake of two possible terrorist attacks just hours after Peres and Arafat emerged from their meeting Tuesday.
In one incident, tow Israeli security guards were fatally shot near the West Bank early Wednesday morning. Police were investigating whether the attack was carried out by terrorists.
The two men, identified as Alex Polichenko, 22 of Kfar Saba and Hagai Lavie, 23, of Karkur were guarding an Israel Electric Company construction site near the northern farming village of Sha’ar Ephraim.
The village is located a few miles from the West Bank town of Tulkarm.
In the second incident, a possible terrorist disaster was adverted in the Gaza Strip when Israeli sappers defused a massive roadside bomb near the Israeli settlement of Morag.
Under the tentative agreement between Peres and Arafat, the Israel Defense Force would be responsible for the security of all Israelis in the territories and would be free to carry out their ongoing war against terrorism, according to officials.
Arafat also said that two months after elections for a Palestinian Council, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s national Convenient, which calls for Israel’s destruction, would be amended.
An all-night meeting between Peres and Arafat on Saturday adjourned with mainly security issues left to be ironed out. Arafat asked for time to consult with his aides, and the two decided to meet again.
After a one-hour private consultation with Rabin, Peres flew to Gaza to meet with Arafat. He was accompanied by Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak and Foreign Ministry Director-General Uri Savir. Savir also heads the Israeli delegation for negotiations with the Palestinians.
The agreements reached at the Tuesday meeting include: * IDF redeployment in the West Bank in preparation for general Palestinian elections. Speaking to reporters from an Independence Day party at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Rabin and Peres said Israel has agreed to a total withdrawal from the centers of the West bank towns of Jenin, Tulkarm, Kalkilya and Nablus.
In instances of anti-terrorist activities, the Israeli army would be able to re-enter city centers, they said.
Israel would so withdraw from the centers of Bethlehem and Ramallah, but only after the completion of new bypass roads sometime next year. Israel also reportedly agreed to and IDF withdrawal from the 450 Palestinian villages in the West Bank. * A partial redeployment in Hebron, where Jewish settlers live in the heart of the predominantly Arab city. Israel had initially rejected any withdrawal from Hebron.
Details surrounding a redeployment in Hebron have yet to be finalized. But Rabin said Israel could not stop the 120,000 Palestinian residents of Hebron from taking part in the elections because of the 415 Israelis residing inside the city itself. * The handling over of civilian authority to the Palestinians. Israel has already handed over responsibility for five spheres of civilian life. Talks on the transfer of eight more area are continuing. * The deployment of Palestinian police. The police would deal with crime prevention and law and order, but not with security issues, which would continue to fall under Israeli responsibility.
The movements of Palestinian police outside these villages would require full coordination with the IDF, under the proposed agreement. * The release of additional Palestinian prisoners. The two sides reportedly agreed to staged release, but not to the specific numbers. About 6,000 prisoners are jailed at this time. Israel has said no prisoners involved in fatal terrorist attacks against Israelis would be released.
Many of the prisoners had gone on a hunger strike to demand their freedom as part of the peace process. Their strike had triggered street demonstrations and much violence in several West Bank cities.
Hundreds of prisoners suspended their strike after progress was reported this week. * The amendment of the Palestinian charter. “If the Palestinians will not commit to changing the convent, there will not be second stage of redeployment,” Rabin said.
The Palestinians have also agreed that most roads, particularly the ones used frequently by Israelis, will remain under full IDF control.
Israel rejected the Palestinian demand for the joint Palestinian-Israeli patrols similar to the ones that exist in Jericho and Gaza. Instead, there will be some ad hoc joint patrols that will deal with situations such as road accidents involving Palestinians and Israelis.
Israel and the Palestinians have yet to agree on a date for the Palestinian elections and the right of residents of eastern Jerusalem to vote and run in the elections.
The two sides are likely to reach a compromise that would enable only those residents who have second addresses outside the municipal limits to run.
As for voting, residents will most likely be able to vote, but outside the city, according to Foreign Ministry officials.
Peres told reporters after their meeting that he and Arafat “agreed on most of the points, not all of them, some in writing and some orally. The major obstacle is lack of time. We agreed on principles, but to write it down will take quite a long time.”
For his part, Arafat said, “We hope today we can say we achieved something concrete in our hands, so we will have very soon an agreement on redeployment and after that elections, taking into consideration Israeli needs for security and to face terrorism.”
Some officials have expressed concern that West Bank settlers could create difficulties for the IDF redeployment plan. Although some bases will be established on state-owned land, the plan also calls for military bases inside some of the settlements.
It is feared that resistance from the settlers may slow down or even halt the army redeployment, which is a prerequisite to the first-ever free and democratic Palestinian elections.
Shahak, the IDF chief of staff, told the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee on Monday that if an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is not achieved in the near future, there is reason to fear that Hamas terrorist attacks would resume inside Israel again.
Palestinian and Israeli negotiating teams are expected to hammer out the details of the Peres-Arafat agreements over the next three weeks.
Meanwhile, the opposition Likud Party has leveled sharp criticism at the agreement.
Describing it as another example of the government’s “giving in” to Arafat, the party issued a statement charging that the Rabin government wants to turn over to the Palestinians cities in Judea and Samaria that would become escape routes for terrorists.
On the left, Meretz praised the agreement, with faction chairman Ran Cohen calling it “a tremendous achievement.”
The agreement “guarantees security and will remove the obstacle to peace presented by the settlements in Judea and Samaria,” said Cohen, whose party is part of the Labor-led coalition government.