Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Eilat are reportedly upbeat about holding a signing ceremony next week in Washington for the next phase of Palestinian self-rule.
According to local news reports, Sept. 21 is the new target date for a signing ceremony. It comes after the two sides have chalked up a string of missed deadlines that began in July.
Negotiators from the two sides were meeting in Eilat on Thursday, hoping to wrap up all the unresolved issues.
Israel Radio quoted Israeli sources there saying that the issue of Hebron, the main stumbling block in talks, would be left for a meeting between Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat that is scheduled to take place Saturday night.
Underscoring the optimism, the Prime Minister’s Office said it had already made arrangements for a special air force plan to fly Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Peres to Washington for the signing next week.
But Rabin, in Moscow on Thursday for talks with Russian officials, was nonetheless cautious.
“Why should I commit myself now to a date?” he told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. “It is more important to complete the agreement first. We set dates in the past, in July and August, and didn’t reach agreement.”
Israel and the PLO have been trying to reach agreement on the second stage of Palestinian self-rule, which would include elections in the territories and an Israeli army redeployment from major Arab population centers in the West Bank.
Hebron has been a main sticking point in the negotiations, with Israel saying it must keep soldiers there to protect the 450 Jewish settlers living among some 120,000 Palestinians in the West bank city.
There were four successive days of unrest in Hebron this week, with repeated confrontations between Jewish settlers and local Arabs who repeatedly got into melees over whether a Palestinian flag could be hoisted outside a Palestinian girls school.
On Thursday, some 2,000 Palestinian students marched through Hebron and clashed with Israeli security forces, who used stun grenades to disperse them.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority’s continued refusal to hand over to Israel two suspected murderers who fled to the West Bank Jericho enclave has raised concerns that other West Bank towns could become safe havens for terrorists after the Israeli redeployment.
Under the terms of the self-rule accord, Israel can request the extradition of suspected terrorists who carried out the attack in Israeli-controlled areas.
Israel was expected to submit a formal extradition request at the negotiations in Eilat.
The situation was compounded Thursday when a Palestinian court in the Gaza Strip reportedly sentenced another two men wanted in Israel on murder charges to 12-year sentences rather than turn them over to Israeli authorities.