JERUSALEM, Sept. 1 (JTA) — It sounds like a tall order, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak seriously intends to have the essential elements of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute wrapped up by February. With the practicalities of implementing the Wye accord squared away — a deal on when and how to implement the agreement was due to be signed at a ceremony Thursday in Egypt in the presence of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright — Israel and the Palestinians will be ready to embark on the final-status negotiations. Israel and the Palestinian Authority held intensive negotiations this week in an effort to reach agreement for implementing Wye, which was signed last October. In dramatic on-again, off-again negotiations Wednesday, both sides said they hoped to reach agreement by the following day, when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak hoped to host the signing ceremony during Albright’s visit to the region. The agreement was expected to include a timetable for the second and third Israeli withdrawals from portions of the West Bank that were spelled out in the Wye accord. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu carried out the first of those withdrawals last November before suspending the agreement, citing Palestinian non-compliance. The main sticking point in Wednesday’s talks was the issue of prisoner releases. The Palestinian Authority called for the release of some 400 Palestinians held in Israeli jails — after originally demanding 650 — while Israel offered freedom for some 350 detainees. But it was expected that these remaining differences would be worked out in time for Thursday’s ceremony. With this hurdle behind them, the two sides will turn next to the final-status talks, which will tackle some of the thorniest problems confronting them, including the status of Jerusalem, final borders, Palestinian sovereignty and the return of Palestinian refugees. A formal opening ceremony for the talks was held two years ago, but no progress has been made since then, as the two sides became bogged down in disputes regarding the interim accords. By February, according to Barak’s timetable, Israel and the Palestinian Authority will reach a framework agreement that will lay down the guidelines for a solution of all the key problems between them, except that of the status and future of Jerusalem. Subsequent intensive negotiations will result in a full-fledged accord by the year’s end. The February document, as Barak envisages it, will be no less historic than the original 1993 Oslo accord, in which Israel and the PLO exchanged recognition and embarked on the interim peace process. The February document will presumably include: * acceptance by Israel of Palestinian independence; * acceptance by the Palestinian Authority that the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees does not pertain to territory within the State of Israel; * an international mechanism to resolve the refugee issue; * agreement regarding the presence of Jewish settlements in territory beyond Israel’s 1967 borders; The precise borders of the new Palestinian state will be the subject of the subsequent negotiations, but their outline will emerge in broad brush strokes from the February document. Barak is operating under the premise that leaving issues unresolved beyond the timetable he envisages will only invite future strife. Conceivably, the treaty envisaged for the end of next year could be concluded and signed with only the issue of Jerusalem left unresolved.
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