Netanyahu, Arafat to meet to conclude Hebron accord

JERUSALEM, Dec. 31 (JTA) — Israel and the Palestinian Authority appeared Tuesday to have finalized a long-delayed Hebron agreement, meeting a New Year’s deadline set by both sides. U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross met with leaders from both sides to press for a summit meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat to initial the accord. But Israeli officials said a meeting between the two leaders might be delayed until Wednesday by the Knesset’s scheduled vote on the controversial 1997 state budget. Ahead of the vote Tuesday evening, Netanyahu worked to rein in coalition members who were threatening to oppose the budget over social spending cuts. Netanyahu was also reportedly working to gain greater backing for the Hebron deal from his 18-member Cabinet. About one-third of the ministers have threatened to oppose the plan, citing insufficient security arrangements for Hebron’s 450 Jewish settlers. But a senior adviser to Netanyahu was confident that the prime minister would muster the necessary support. “I have no doubt that he will have widespread support,” David Bar- Illan told Israel Radio. In Hebron, home to 130,000 Palestinians, tensions remained high as security forces discovered a bomb and an explosive gas balloon near the city’s Jewish quarter. Earlier, Israeli police arrested and subsequently released 15 Jewish settlers who tried to occupy a vacant building in Hebron’s market, adjacent to the Jewish quarter. Under the 1995 Interim Agreement signed by the previous Labor government and the Palestinians, Israeli troops were to have redeployed in March from 80 percent of the volatile West Bank town. The transfer of most of Hebron to Palestinian self-rule was initially postponed by the Peres government after a series of suicide bombings in Israel. It was further delayed when Netanyahu took office in June, demanding more stringent security arrangements for the deal. The Palestinians countered with other demands. Netanyahu said this week that the emerging Hebron deal had stronger security guarantees than the previous one. Hebron is the last of seven major West Bank cities Israel agreed to hand over to Palestinian rule. In their current negotiations, the sides have been haggling over the three further Israeli redeployments in rural West Bank areas. The redeployments were called for under the Interim Agreement. Science Minister Ze’ev “Benny” Begin, a staunch opponent of the existing Israeli-Palestinian accords, called on Netanyahu to oppose any further redeployments at this stage. Earlier this week, Netanyahu faced an oppositional coalition, when members stayed away from a no-confidence motion on Hebron. The Knesset defeated a no-confidence motion Monday submitted by the right-wing Moledet Party in response to the emerging Hebron accord. Key coalition members from the Likud and the National Religious Party stayed away from the plenum rather than vote against the government.

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