After months of delays in the peace process, the Palestinians are now close to attaining more extensive self-rule in the West Bank.
The Israeli Cabinet at its weekly meeting Sunday approved the preliminary agreement worked out by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat after four days of intensive talks last week at the Red Sea resort of Taba, Egypt.
Early last Friday, Peres and Arafat announced that they had agreed on new guidelines for their respective negotiating teams to hammer into a final accord.
“With this agreement, we didn’t complete the work,” Peres said last Friday. “But without this agreement, the committees wouldn’t be able to continue to work.”
With the preliminary agreement in hand, the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators returned to Eilat on Sunday to resume their talks.
After the two negotiating committees finalize the agreement, a signing ceremony will be held in Washington.
The ceremony is expected to take place in early September.
The preliminary agreement worked out by Peres and Arafat covered in a broad outline a plan for Israeli troop redeployments in the West Bank.
Among other provisions, the Palestinians committed again to revoke those paragraphs in the Palestinian Covenant that call for the destruction of Israel.
Arafat made a similar promise to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in a letter dated Sept. 9, 1993 – a move demanded by Rabin before the two sides signed the Declaration of Principles on the White House lawn several days later.
Fifteen ministers in Rabin’s Cabinet voted their approval of the Peres-Arafat agreement.
Energy Minister Gonen Segev of the Yi’ud Party was alone in voting against it. Interior Minister Ehud Barak and Economics Minister Shimon Shetreet abstained.
Segev later said the he feared that the new agreement would lead to an Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders.
Barak, who retired in January as the Israel Defense Force chief of staff, also had reservations about the agreement, which he said could weaken Israel’s bargaining position in the final-status negotiations that are slated to begin next year.
Absorption Minister Yair Tsaban said Rabin had warned his ministers not to speak out against the agreement, telling them “they should resign” before issuing public criticisms.
The main opposition Likud Party collected enough signatures last Friday to call the Knesset back from its summer recess for a special debate later this week on the Peres-Arafat agreement, which Likud branded “an accord of surrender.”
The preliminary agreement worked out last week in Taba includes the following provisions: * Israel agreed to withdraw troops from six of the seven main Arab population centers in the West Bank during the next several months. PLO negotiators complained that Palestinians would control only 18 percent of territory in the West Bank as a result of this first-stage pullout. * Israel agreed to three more withdrawals, one every six months, from rural areas in the West Bank after Palestinian elections are held. This second-phase redeployment would be completed by July 1997. * Palestinian forces would assume control for local policing of the rural sectors after the Israeli withdrawal and would be allowed to establish up to 25 police stations in the area, which comprises some 400 Palestinian villages. But Israel would continue to have responsibility for overall security in the area. * Israel agreed to release Palestinians held in Israeli jails in three stages: when the agreement is signed in Washington; on the eve of Palestinian elections; and when the final-status talks begin. Israel continued to refuse to release those prisoners who have Israeli blood on their hands. * With the signing of the interim-phase agreement, Israel will transfer to the Palestinians the authority to levy and collect taxes in the West Bank. In addition, Israel will hand over tax revenues from Palestinian workers. * The Palestinians agreed to delete all clauses in the Palestinian Covenant calling for the destruction of the Jewish state two months after a Palestinian Council is elected.
The two keys issues left unresolved in the Taba talks were arrangements for the West Bank town of Hebron, where 400 Jewish settlers live among 80,000 Palestinians, and who will have control over water sources in the West Bank.
Israel proposed that Palestinian police be allowed to deploy in certain areas of Hebron, but that Israel would remain responsible for those areas in which the Jewish residents of the city live and travel.
Peres said last Friday that the Palestinian Authority is “putting up its strongest political battle for Hebron.”
Arafat spokesman Marwan Kanafani said, “Hebron is the issue which will make or break this deal.”
Hebron Mayor Mustafa Natshe suggested that the Hebron settlers move to the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba, but the settlers vowed that they would never leave.
The two sides agreed to postpone the discussions about water.
They also agreed to the formation of a three-way U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian committee to address issues of economic development in the territories.