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Israelis, Palestinians disagree on when withdrawals will start

JERUSALEM, Aug. 11 (JTA) — When exactly Israel will begin withdrawing from more West Bank territory has provoked a new round of disagreement between Israeli and Palestinian officials. The dispute stemmed from a comment Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made Sunday, when he said Israel would begin implementing the Wye accord in September. At first glance, it appeared that Barak meant the second of three withdrawals spelled out in the accord would begin next month. The comment had sparked hopes that the two sides were inching closer toward resolving earlier differences. Indeed, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, bolstering those hopes, subsequently accepted the timetable. Barak had promised to carry out the Wye agreement in August, Arafat told reporters Sunday, but if it began in September, “We accept this.” But it soon became clear that the two sides were not talking about the same thing. Barak’s offer did not spell out when Israel would complete the withdrawals from the West Bank that are called for in the Wye agreement. And when he and his aides began issuing clarifications, the Palestinian side was less than pleased. It turned out that Barak expects the Palestinian Authority to begin meeting its security obligations in September, including confiscating illegal weapons and reducing the size of the Palestinian police force. After that, Israel would begin withdrawing from West Bank land in October. Despite the disagreement, the two sides continued this week to try to resolve the dispute. Palestinian officials confirmed that Barak had met earlier in the week with a deputy to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, Abu Mazen, to discuss a possible compromise on the issue, and Israeli and Palestinian representatives were due to meet Wednesday to discuss the issue. Meanwhile, Barak and Arafat may meet in the coming days to finalize a timetable for Israel’s next withdrawals from the West Bank, according to Israeli press reports. The apparent progress came despite two terrorist attacks this week. A Jewish settler was ambushed while he was driving in his car Tuesday evening near the Palestinian self-rule town of Jenin. The attack came after a Palestinian twice drove his car Tuesday into a group of Israeli soldiers, wounding 12. The attacker reportedly had no ties to terrorist groups, but had been reading the biography of a Hamas bomb-maker widely believed to have been killed by Israel. After the first attack Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak warned of a possible increase in terrorism as Israel prepared to implement Wye, and Israel also sealed off part of the West Bank. In Washington meanwhile, the U.S. State Department said Monday that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was due to visit the region this week, would put off her trip until the end of August or early September — by which time the two sides may have resolved their disputes. State Department officials also said they back the proposal set forward by Barak, with the Wye timetable resuming in September and the Israeli withdrawal taking place some 30 days later. Last week, Israeli and Palestinian leaders were locked in a war of words over a Barak proposal to delay a troop withdrawal Israel promised under the Wye accord and link it to a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Barak at the time criticized the Palestinians’ “rigid” rejection of his proposal, which Arafat described as “an attempt to avoid the accurate and honest implementation of what has been agreed upon.” Talks between the two sides broke down last week over the proposal. Barak has repeatedly stressed that Israel would not change the U.S.-brokered land-for-security deal without Arafat’s approval. He indicated last week that he would be willing to carry out the second of three Israeli withdrawals from portions of the West Bank by October. The third withdrawal would be carried out by February, by which time the two sides would have launched the final-status talks. The first Israeli withdrawal agreed to under last October’s Wye accord was carried out last November. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu then suspended the agreement, charging that the Palestinian Authority was not living up to its part of the deal. It is the third withdrawal that is the major problem for Barak, who has said it could leave Jewish settlements isolated within areas under Palestinian control. Arafat, fearing that he has few chips to bargain with in the final-status talks, prefers to have the Wye withdrawals take place first.