JERUSALEM (Dec. 24)
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators moved closer this week to concluding a long-delayed agreement on redeploying Israeli troops in the West Bank town of Hebron.
In a sign of progress in the talks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat met Tuesday to discuss ways to implement the agreement.
But after conferring for three hours at the Erez Crossing on the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, the two failed to finalize an accord.
The two leaders did not talk to reporters after their meeting, but U.S. Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross, who served as mediator, described the session as “extremely productive.”
Ross added that Netanyahu and Arafat had “made real progress” toward reaching the accord. “They dealt with the kind of issues that have to be resolved to reach an agreement.”
Ross said the two leaders had instructed their negotiators to continue meeting this week and that Netanyahu and Arafat would convene again soon.
Meanwhile, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Tuesday he expected relations with Israel to improve after Israel redeploys its troops in Hebron. Mubarak made the comment during a joint news conference with Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai after the two held talks at an Egyptian resort on the Red Sea.
The Netanyahu-Arafat summit took place amid reports that the two sides were closer than ever to an agreement.
As part of the formula for reaching a pact that would turn over most of Hebron to Palestinian self-rule, the two sides agreed that the accord would be accompanied by written guarantees from both sides that each would soon implement other elements of the Interim Agreement that was signed last year in Washington.
Tuesday’s summit came after intensive mediation efforts by Ross, who arrived in the region Saturday night, as well as high-level contacts that ultimately involved Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s second in command.
Netanyahu and Abbas joined negotiators Monday afternoon at a Jerusalem hotel to work out the remaining issues in dispute.
Abbas later traveled to Gaza to convey the details of the emerging agreement to Arafat.
Palestinian officials voiced optimism Monday that an agreement would be reached shortly.
But after three months of negotiations, during which there were several reports that an agreement was imminent, Israeli officials were more cautious in their assessments.
The Prime Minister’s Office was upbeat about Netanyahu’s talks with Abbas, also known as Abu-Mazen, but stopped short of saying a signing ceremony was at hand.
Abbas told reporters before going to consult with Arafat that the talks had reached a “critical stage.”
According to reports, progress in the talks came as the result of an American “package deal” requiring written commitment from both sides to implement their obligations under the Interim Agreement.
Israeli sources said that under the emerging pact, Israel agreed that several weeks after redeploying its troops in Hebron, it would carry out further redeployments in the West Bank.
Under the terms of the Interim Agreement, those redeployments were to have begun in September.
The emerging agreement would also call on the two sides to agree on when to resume the permanent-status talks. Those talks, which opened ceremonially in early May, will address several contentious issues, including Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, Palestinian statehood and the status of Palestinian refugees.
The Palestinians, for their part, would be called on to uphold their agreements in the Oslo accords, including a commitment to draft a Palestinian Covenant that contains no calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.
They would also agree to disarm Islamic militants, another provision of the accords, it was reported.
In Hebron, the emerging agreement called for the establishment of “restricted areas” around the Jewish enclaves, where a limited number of Palestinian police armed with pistols would be allowed.
Palestinian police armed with rifles would only be allowed into the areas with the permission of Israel.
Palestinian police would establish checkposts around these areas, to prevent Palestinian crowds from entering the area.
Joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols would be held around a buffer zone separating Hebron’s 500 settlers from the rest of the town. There are an estimated 130,000 Palestinians living in Hebron.
Meanwhile, Israel would agree to the gradual reopening of Shuhada, or Martyrs, Street, which was closed for security reasons.
Israel, relinquishing one of its long-standing security demands, agreed to give up its right to conduct a hot pursuit of suspected terrorists into areas of Hebron under Palestinian control.
Instead, Israel accepted the original wording of the Interim Agreement, which said Israel would be able to pursue suspected terrorists only under certain conditions.
A senior political source quoted by Israel Radio said Tuesday night that after a Hebron agreement is initialed, it would be brought to the Israeli government for approval.