With the second anniversary of the signing of the Palestinian self-rule accord approaching, difficulties continue to plague the negotiations for reaching an interim phase agreement on extending self-rule in the West Bank.
More than a dozen issues remain unresolved in the ongoing talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Eilat.
The head of the Palestinian delegation, Ahmed Karia, put the number of problematic areas even higher.
Karia, also known as Abu Alaa, said in a weekend radio interview that there were more than 150 differences the two sides, some of them wording, others more substantive.
Israeli and Palestinian sources expressed doubt over the weekend that they could meet the new deadline for a Sept. 18 signing in Washington of the interim agreement.
In August, the two sides were speaking of a Sept. 4 signing ceremony, but that date has repeatedly been pushed back.
Israeli sources hope that the ceremony will take place before Rosh Hashanah, which falls on Sept. 24.
Implementation of the next phase of the Israeli-Palestinian accord, signed in Washington on Sept. 13, 1993, has been held up, at least in part due to heightened Israeli security concerns in the wake of repeated terror attacks launched by militant Islamic groups opposed to the peace process.
After Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin held discussions with his “security cabinet,” as well as with senior security and foreign ministry officials, to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The “security cabinet,” which oversees issues related to the still-evolving peace accord, was told of 18 points of difference still remaining between the Israeli and Palestinian sides.
These included the questions of security provisions in the West Bank town of Hebron, who would have control over water sources and electricity grids in the West Bank, the release of Palestinian prisoners, and issues related to the holding of Palestinian elections – problems that have bedeviled the two sides for months.
Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres made a surprise visit to Hebron Monday to examine firsthand security options in the West Bank town. Israel has indicated a willingness to redeploy its troops from certain areas of the town that have no Jewish presence, but said it would retain control of routes that cut through the city in order to ensure safe passage for some 400 Jewish residents.
Meanwhile, in the Gaza Strip, Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat called on his negotiating team Sunday to speed up the negotiations.
Palestinian sources reportedly said after a Sunday meeting of the leadership of the Palestinian Authority that they had discussed a proposal by U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross to move the negotiations to Washington.
Last week, in an effort to expedite the negotiations in Eilat, Israeli ministers joined the talks.
Israeli Police Minister Moshe Shahal reported after an Aug. 30 meeting that there had been some progress on a number of divisive issues.
Shahal said Abu Alaa had agreed that the Palestinian Authority would operate only in areas under its jurisdiction, currently the Gaza Strip and West Bank Jericho enclave.
Last week, prior to meeting with Alaa, Shahal issued an order that three Palestinian institutions in eastern Jerusalem close down because of their alleged links to the self-rule government.
Under a compromise reached 24 hours before the closure orders were to take effect against the Palestinian Health Council, the Palestinian Broadcast Authority and the Palestinian Statistics Center, the three institutions expressed their willingness to sign declarations that they have no ties, financial or otherwise, with the Palestinian Authority.
On Aug. 31, the Palestinian Health Council signed the declaration, and the Palestinian Broadcasting Authority said its Jerusalem office served private business interests and was not connected to the self-rule government.
On Sunday, the Palestinian Center for Statistics in eastern Jerusalem signed the declaration.
By signing the declarations, the three institutions were allowed to stay open, and the closure orders expired without taking effect.
In another sign of slight progress, Shahal also said last week that the two sides had agreed to set up a telephone hot line between the heads of their respective police forces and to cooperate in criminal investigations.
Another source of friction was removed when Israel lifted its closure of Jericho on Aug. 30. Rabin had sealed off the self-rule enclave from the rest of the West Bank a week earlier, after two Hamas members wanted in connection with the Aug. 21 suicide bus bombing had fled there.
Despite these signs of progress, the talks in Eilat remained bogged down over the series of issues still in dispute.
Energy Minister Gonen Segev, who joined the talks along with Shahal last week, discussed one of those issues – electricity in the West Bank – saying that the problem stemmed from the Palestinian demand for control over West Bank power grids.
“I said to the Palestinians that they can operate the grids in cooperation with us, but they can’t have ownership,” Segev told Israel Radio. “Especially the high-voltage grid.”
Segev said the high-voltage grid supplies power to army bases throughout the West Bank, stressing that it is hooked up to the Israeli system.
During a brief meeting in Italy last week, Peres and Arafat held informal talks in an effort to iron out some of the unresolved issues.
Peres and Arafat met for 50 minutes last Friday at Cernobbio in northern Italy, where both were attending a private symposium of businessmen and political leaders.
At a news conference in Cernobbio, Peres revealed that Israeli and Palestinian delegations had held secret negotiations in Italy in June.
He would not disclose the venue, saying that further talks could take place there, so it had to remain secret.
Peres told the news conference that the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations could be completed by the end of the month, although there was “still a lot to be done” in the overall peace process.
“The second phase of negotiations with the Palestinians should be completed this month, and we’ll need several months to implement the accord,” he said.
The chief problem is the negotiations with Syria and Lebanon, “which are going very slowly,” he said.
Peres also said he hoped that Palestinian elections could be held by the year’s end.
Arafat, in a speech to the Cernobbio symposium of business and political leaders, blamed Israel for the slow pace of the self-rule negotiations and warned that delays could breed dangerous reactions.
“The enemies of peace will exploit the standstill,” he said in what was interpreted as a reference to Israeli and Palestinian extremists.
“We still have a lot ahead of us to reach peace,” Arafat said. “Israel still delays, procrastinates and maneuvers on the issue of the implementation of the second phase of the Declaration of Principles which were signed in Washington.”
Palestinian sources said that Peres and Arafat would hold another meeting in Egypt later this week.
On Saturday, Arafat had a 30-minute audience with Pope John Paul II, during which he thanked the pope for the Vatican’s support for the Palestinian cause.
They also discussed the peace process and the status of Jerusalem.
The Vatican issued a statement saying that the pope had praised both Israel and the Palestinians for their courage in carrying on with the negotiations.
The audience, which took place at the pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo south of Rome, was the fourth meeting between Arafat and the pope.