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King Hussein’s intervention brings Hebron accord closer

JERUSALEM, Jan. 13 (JTA) — There were indications this week that Israel and the Palestinian Authority might finally reach an agreement for turning over most of Hebron to Palestinian self-rule. After the two sides apparently cleared a main hurdle Sunday toward finalizing the agreement, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators worked Monday to finalize the pact’s wording. But cautioning those who believed that a signing ceremony was once again imminent, officials from both sides stressed that some differences still had to be overcome. Intensive efforts continued Monday after the mediation of Jordan’s King Hussein, who traveled to the Gaza Strip and Tel Aviv the previous day at the request of American officials. Hussein succeeded in getting Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat to agree to a compromise proposal on a timetable for further Israeli redeployments in rural areas of the West Bank. The proposal called for three phased pullbacks to be completed by mid-1998. After meeting with Arafat, Hussein flew to Israel to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Under the terms of the 1995 Interim Agreement, Israel was to begin the first of the three redeployments within six months after the inauguration of the Palestinian legislative council last March. Netanyahu said he would agree to a first pullback within weeks of the implementation of the Hebron agreement. He added that the final redeployment would be completed by September 1999. Last week, U.S. Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross proposed a compromise date of mid-1998. Netanyahu accepted the proposal, but Arafat rejected it at the time. As the talks continued Monday, President Clinton called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to discuss the status of the negotiations. Sources close to the talks said the evolving agreement would also include a letter of commitment from the Palestinians to fight terror and disarm the fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups. Along with the three phased redeployments, the Palestinians are demanding that the accord and accompanying documents include other matters unrelated to Hebron — including the release of Palestinian security prisoners held in Israeli jails, the opening of a safe passage route between the West Bank and Gaza, and the opening of a Palestinian port and airport in Gaza. After it was announced Sunday that Hussein was traveling to Tel Aviv to meet with Netanyahu, Ross canceled earlier plans to leave the region Sunday night. After weekend talks in Cairo, Ross said he had done his best to help both sides conclude an agreement. He and other officials conceded that agreement had been reached on the redeployment of Israeli troops from most of Hebron, but that differences still remained on a timetable for further Israeli redeployments in rural parts of the West Bank. Ross had planned to return to Washington after his talks Saturday with Mubarak produced no breakthrough. Ross did not meet with Arafat, who was also in Cairo at the time. A meeting Ross held later Saturday with Netanyahu also failed to produce an agreement. On Saturday night, the Palestinian Authority issued a statement saying that the “peace talks have hit a deadlock.” Meanwhile, as the sides moved towards concluding a deal Monday, Israeli circles opposed to the agreement began to mobilize. Seven of the 18 Cabinet ministers are believed to be opposed to the agreement. Settlers from the Jewish community in Hebron decided in a meeting to focus efforts to persuade those ministers, as well as others believed to be wavering, to vote against the agreement. The National Religious Party and Tsomet factions in the Knesset convened Monday to discuss their position on the agreement. And the Yesha Council, which represents settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, met to discuss what actions it would take against the agreement. Among the steps they were considering were demonstrations, a hunger strike and a symbolic resignation of all local council leaders. In Hebron on Sunday, two firebombs were thrown at an Israeli car traveling on the road between the settlement of Kiryat Arba and the Tomb of the Patriarchs. No one was injured and there was no damage.