Dogged problems in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have led to repeated changes in the date that a signing ceremony will take place in Washington for the completed interim phase agreement.
In an effort to clear up the logjam, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat met Wednesday at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba for a session that was expected to run late into the night.
The two sides have been working intensively to complete the agreement on expanding Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank.
But the talks have been deadlocked on a number of issues, including the release of Palestinian security prisoners and security arrangements in the West Bank town of Hebron.
Shortly before leaving the Gaza Strip for the meeting with Peres, Arafat said he hoped that solutions could be found for all the outstanding problems, including Hebron – which promised to top the agenda at the Taba talks.
The next phase of Palestinian self-rule calls for an Israeli army redeployment from all Palestinian population centers in the West Bank.
But Hebron, the only West Bank city with a Jewish settler population, has proven one of the most difficult issues in the negotiations.
Israel has agreed to a partial withdrawal from the city, but it insists that some of its soldiers remain to protect the 400 settlers who live among Hebron’s 80,000 Palestinians.
The Palestinians are willing to accept a phased Israeli withdrawal from Hebron, but they are insisting that it ultimately be a complete withdrawal.
“There will be a certain degree of evacuation from places we hold in Hebron,” Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told Israel Television on Wednesday.
But he added that Israeli troops would remain in control of areas deemed necessary for the protection of settlers in Hebron and in the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba.
Peres also flatly rejected the Palestinian calls for a complete Israeli withdrawal from Hebron.
“The Palestinians are not in a position to dictate,” he told Israel Radio on Tuesday. “We, who have power to dictate, are looking for a discussion and not dictation.”
Implementation of the interim phase agreement is more than a year behind schedule.
A major factor has been Israeli security concerns in the wake of a series of terror attacks against Israelis by Islamic fundamentalist groups opposed to the peace process.
Arafat spokesman Nabil Abu Irdeineh was quoted by news reports as saying he hoped that an agreement could be signed by Sept. 18, the latest target date set by the two sides for a signing ceremony in Washington.
As Peres and Arafat prepared to meet in Taba, a group of 13 Likud members, headed by party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, toured Hebron on Wednesday.
They met with Jewish settlers, who repeated their opposition to any security arrangements that would require a partial redeployment of Israeli troops and the stationing of Palestinian police in Hebron.
“We did not come back to this holy city to be under the regime of a terrorist organization,” Hebron settler leader Noam Arnon told Israel Radio.
“No matter how they are dressing, in uniform or not,” he added, “they are terrorists,”
Netanyahu lashed out at Peres’ meeting with Arafat.
“Mr. Arafat has been quoted again as preaching a jihad, fighting to the last Palestinian child,” he said. “These are hardly the words of a man of peace.”
Meanwhile, in a show of opposition to the Jewish presence in Hebron, four Muslim officials moved their offices from the city’s outskirts to the contested center.
They said they were following orders from Arafat to “protect the city from turning it into a Jewish area.”
According to news reports, a scuffle broke out when Jewish settlers attacked one of the offices to protest what they called “terrorist provocation’s.”
No one was hurt.