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Netanyahu joins Hebron talks in effort to reach agreement

JERUSALEM, Dec. 23 (JTA) — 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. 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. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s second in command, joined negotiators Monday afternoon at a Jerusalem hotel to work out the remaining issues in dispute. Palestinian officials voiced optimism 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. The Israeli media reported that the two sides had resolved all disputed issues, adding that a Netanyahu-Arafat signing ceremony might be held away from the public eye, perhaps on an American ship. But Israeli officials said the sides still had to complete a draft of the accord before a Netanyahu-Arafat meeting could take place. “The prime minister and the [Palestinian] chairman will meet when there will be substantive things to deal with,” Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai told reporters after being briefed by Netanyahu on his talks with Abbas. Abbas told reporters Monday before going to consult with Arafat that the talks had reached a “critical stage.” The breakthrough in the talks came during a visit to the region this week by U.S. Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross. After meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials Saturday night and Sunday, Ross flew to Cairo on Monday to brief Egyptian leaders on the talks. He later returned to Israel, where he again met with Netanyahu. 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.