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Reports: Israelis, Palestinians reach compromise on withdrawals

JERUSALEM, Aug. 26 (JTA) — Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has delayed talks with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Washington amid reports that Israel and the Palestinians had agreed to a timetable for further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank. According to reports, the sides agreed that Israel would complete in January withdrawals totaling an additional 11 percent of West Bank land, which was called for under the Wye agreement. The Palestinians had initially demanded completion sooner, but agreed instead to a larger initial handover of 7 percent. Publicly, however, Israeli and Palestinian officials denied that an overall agreement had been reached, saying that the sides still differed over a key aspect of the U.S.-brokered Wye accord, the release of Palestinian prisoners. The Washington meeting was rescheduled for Friday. Albright is due in the Middle East from Sept. 1-5 on a mission designed to boost Israeli-Arab peacemaking efforts. According to a Reuters report, Israeli and Palestinian officials are prepared to hold a signing ceremony in Egypt during Albright’s visit. The government of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu transferred 2 percent of West Bank land to the Palestinians last year before freezing implementation, citing Palestinian violations of the agreement. Reports said that implementation would begin in September, when Israel would hand over 7 percent of the territory. The final phase of 4 percent would be completed in January, a month earlier than the initial date sought by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Israel Radio said. The further redeployment would leave the Palestinians with control over about 40 percent of the West Bank. The reported agreement represents a compromise for both sides. The Palestinians had initially demanded Israeli adherence to the original Wye timetable, which called for the withdrawals to be completed by November. Israel had sought to stretch out the further withdrawals, in order to incorporate the last phase into the final-status talks. Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat said this week he believes Israel and the Palestinians could wrap up peace accords by May 4, 2000. The original date for completing the final status talks passed on May 4, 1999, when Arafat had threatened to declare an independent state. But he subsequently heeded international appeals, and agreed to delay the declaration by one year.

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