Knesset overwhelmingly backs accord on handing over Hebron

JERUSALEM, Jan. 16 (JTA) — The final pieces of the Israeli handover of most of Hebron to Palestinian rule fell into place this week as the Knesset overwhelmingly approved the accord and the Israel Defense Force made preparations to carry out its redeployment. In a vote of 87-17, with one abstention, the Knesset adopted a resolution Thursday, endorsing the agreement. Thanking the Knesset after the vote, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “I hope in the future, during this government’s term, to bring complete peace agreements with the Palestinians and perhaps with Arab nations, in addition to the ones we have signed.” A day earlier, after a stormy 12-hour meeting, the Cabinet approved the agreement, with 11 ministers voting in favor and seven against. One Cabinet member, Science Minister Ze’ev “Benny” Begin, resigned in protest. The Knesset floor was also stormy prior to the vote, with heckling coming from both the right and left. Addressing the Knesset plenum before the vote, Netanyahu said Israel had insisted on three main principles in negotiating the agreement: reciprocity in fulfilling the accord’s terms; Israel’s sole right to determine the extent of the further redeployments in the West Bank that are scheduled to follow the Hebron withdrawal; and the passage of time between each further redeployment in order to give Israel the chance to evaluate Palestinian compliance. The 1995 Interim Agreement, which first addressed the Hebron redeployment, was “vague, general,” Netanyahu said, adding that it had “holes which could lead to misunderstandings with the Palestinians.” “We did everything to minimize the risks,” he added, “and I’m convinced it is a better, more secure agreement.” Speaking on behalf of the opposition, Labor Knesset member Ehud Barak, who is a frontrunner for his party’s leadership, congratulated Netanyahu on following “in the footsteps of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.” Barak promised the backing of the opposition if Netanyahu continued in this direction. But Barak expressed concern that because Netanyahu was not the “engineer” of the peace train, he was not sure the prime minister would be able to bring it to the next station. Some of Netanyahu’s sharpest critics came from within his own party. Likud Knesset member Michael Kleiner said he thought the Hebron accord weakened Israel’s position in the long run. “Negotiating a permanent agreement after essentially helping to set up a self-declared Palestinian state will be much more difficult,” Kleiner said. Prior to the debate, Knesset members were given copies of the Hebron accord, and the accompanying documents, which included the American “Note of Record” that summarizes a series of Israeli and Palestinian commitments, including the series of further West Bank redeployments. The parliamentarians also received the letter of assurance Warren Christopher sent Netanyahu in which the outgoing secretary of state underscored the American commitment to Israel’s security needs. But a request by some Knesset members to see the letter Christopher sent to Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat was turned down. Danny Naveh, Cabinet secretary, said he was told by American officials that the prime minister would be briefed on its content, but that the letter itself was not addressed to Israel. In Hebron, IDF troops made final preparations Thursday for a troop redeployment from 80 percent of the city. Israeli civil administration officials met with their Palestinian counterparts to coordinate the transfer of 12 civilian powers. Israeli and Palestinian security officials also held contacts Thursday to arrange the turnover.

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