News Analysis: Ambiguity in Hebron Accord Likely to Bring New Tensions

The Hebron agreement is a done deal, but storm clouds are already gathering, threatening to make the achievement short-lived.

As part of the accord reached last week, the two sides agreed to a series of further Israeli redeployments in rural areas of the West Bank.

But the amount of land Israel would cede to the Palestinians during the next 18 months was left vague and is already in dispute.

Another contentious subject is Palestinian statehood, an issue slated for the final-status talks, which are scheduled to resume in the spring.

A unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood prior to those discussions could put relations between the two sides into disarray.

A third storm brewing is the Israeli-Syrian track.

Negotiations between Jerusalem and Damascus remain on hold, and despite pronouncements from both sides of a desire to resume the talks, practical difficulties loom large.

The Israeli-Palestinian track, though moving forward again after months of frustrating impasse, is littered with potentially dangerous obstacles.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated Monday, in a lengthy interview with Israel Radio, that Israel has the unilateral right in the Hebron agreement to determine its security needs — and therefore to determine the extent of the further redeployments in the West Bank.

The 1995 Interim Agreement, from which the Hebron accord evolved, states that Israel would redeploy to “specified military locations” during the further redeployments.

Israel defines these locations as occupying a larger area of the West Bank than envisioned by Palestinian officials and as a result, Israel may transfer less of the rural West Bank than the other side expects.

Netanyahu noted in the interview that Israel’s interpretation is unlikely to be accepted by the Palestinians.

But he insisted that the United States has agreed to it.

Israeli officials point to a passage from the U.S. letter of assurance to Israel that was part of the Hebron agreement.

U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher states in the letter, “I have advised Chairman [Yasser] Arafat of U.S. views on Israel’s process of redeploying its forces, designating specified military locations and transferring additional powers and responsibilities to the Palestinians.”

The Palestinians, in turn, point to a later passage in the same letter in which the outgoing secretary of state reiterates “our position that Israel is entitled to secure and defensible borders, which should be directly negotiated and agreed with its neighbors.”

To the Palestinians, this means that Israel must negotiate the extent of the further redeployments, not determine them unilaterally.

But in the Israeli view, the negotiations referred to in that passage concern the permanent-status talks that will determine final borders, not the further redeployments.

Significantly, neither the United States nor the Palestinians have published the parallel letter of assurance that Christopher sent to Arafat as part of the Hebron package.

If Israel holds firm in determining the extent of the further redeployments unilaterally, the Palestinians may take a similar approach to statehood.

On Sunday, Arafat arrived triumphantly in Hebron two days after Israel turned over 80 percent of the town to Palestinian self-rule. Israeli troops remain in the 20 percent where some 500 Jewish settlers, as well as 20,000 Palestinians, reside.

In his address to thousands of supporters, Arafat pronounced the ancient city “liberated” after nearly three decades of Israeli rule, and he spoke with confidence of his assurances both from the United States and the European Union that the peace process would proceed satisfactorily.

But during the speech, Arafat said his next goals are to gain control of 70 percent of the West Bank and to establish a Palestinian state with eastern Jerusalem as its capital.

A day later, Netanyahu warned grimly that Israel would react with the utmost seriousness if the Palestinians unilaterally declared their independence in defiance of the negotiating framework set out in the Israeli-Palestinian accords.

“I am opposed to an independent Palestinian state,” Netanyahu told reporters. “What we will propose is broad self-rule, but without sovereign powers which could be harmful to Israeli security.”

The issue of statehood aside, Netanyahu praised Arafat for the relatively moderate tone of his speech.

Israel has handed over seven West Bank cities to the Palestinians, the premier said to reporters after addressing the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

Each time, he said, Arafat’s victory speech had been a catalog of inflammatory and provocative declarations.

But Arafat’s speech in Hebron was different, Netanyahu said, adding, “I hope this marks a change for the future.”

Arafat, for his part, told reporters Sunday night that now that the Hebron agreement had been reached, he could regard Netanyahu as his “friend” and partner in peacemaking.

It was unaccustomed camaraderie indeed for the two leaders, who struggled bitterly over the Hebron accord for many months.

Arafat’s speech stood in stark contrast to the remarks made a day earlier by his security chief, Jibril Rajoub, who described the Jewish settlers in Hebron as stones around the Palestinians’ neck that should be discarded.

Israeli officials described Rajoub’s comments as incitement, and demanded a moderating Palestinian statement, which was given in Arafat’s speech.

“We welcome the more positive tone. This is a better direction,” Netanyahu said.

would attempt to make Hebron a safe city for all, including the settlers. Regarding the Syrian peace track, Netanyahu preferred not to comment Monday on an exclusive report published in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz that Christopher had sent a secret letter in September to Netanyahu stating that any understandings reached in the negotiations between Syria and the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin were not internationally binding.

Syria has maintained that the negotiations, which were broken off last March, can only resume on the basis of understandings already reached with the previous Israeli government.

These understandings, according to veteran Ha’aretz correspondent Ze’ev Schiff, called for some demilitarization on the Israeli side of the border and a deeper demilitarization on Syria’s side.

Syria has maintained that the unwritten understandings also included an Israeli willingness to withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Damascus.

Netanyahu was silent Monday regarding the Ha’aretz report, but he has repeatedly stated his unwillingness to hand over the Golan.

And while he maintains that both sides can come to the table and put forward their contrary stands, Damascus is insisting that the land-for-peace principle was established under Rabin and continues to bind both sides.

American sources, among them Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, have indicated that the first focus of Washington’s efforts in the region under Secretary of State-designate Madeleine Albright will be to restart the Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

But given the huge disparities reflected in the public statements emanating from Jerusalem and Damascus, it is hard to see just where Albright and her aides will begin.

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