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Israel postpones West Bank withdrawal

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JERUSALEM, Nov. 16 (JTA) — A planned Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank has hit a snag.

Israel postponed its redeployment from an additional 5 percent of the West Bank, originally slated to take place Monday, when Palestinian officials complained about some of the lands being turned over to them.

After negotiators for the two sides failed to overcome their differences about the redeployment maps, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat held a surprise meeting Sunday night near Tel Aviv — but they, too, were unable to reach agreement.

The dispute came as the U.S. Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross, arrived in the region in an effort to advance the peace process.

Israeli officials were quoted as saying they believe the Palestinian Authority may have delayed agreement in hopes of securing a better arrangement as a result of Ross’ intervention.

But by Tuesday, after Ross held separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials, it was clear that he was not taking sides.

“The best place to sort out problems is by the parties themselves,” he said.

Ross added that it is Israel’s responsibility to carry out the pullback.

Under the terms of the land-for-security accord signed September in Egypt, Israel agreed to withdraw from an additional 18.1 percent of West Bank lands in three stages.

In September, Israel transferred 7 percent of the West Bank to joint Israeli-Palestinian control. In the second stage, which was to be carried out Monday, Israel was to transfer 2 percent of the land to sole Palestinian control and an additional 3 percent to joint control.

On Jan. 20, Israel will hand over an additional 6.1 percent of the region.

The latest dispute centered on the area being transferred to joint control.

Palestinian officials complained that the lands involved — located in the Judean Desert and designated by Israel to become a nature reserve — are too thinly populated.

Instead, they are calling for the transfer of areas closer to land they already control — and with a more substantial Arab population.

At issue is whether the Palestinian Authority has any say in which lands are turned over by Israel.

Israeli officials are maintaining that, under the terms of already signed accords, they alone make that decision.

“We have an agreement, and it would be better not to get smart or play games for it is the decision of the government that counts,” Foreign Minister David Levy said Tuesday.

Levy added that the pullback might still be carried out this week.

Palestinian officials are meanwhile claiming that no clause in the latest agreement bars them from participating in determining which lands will be handed over.

The latest snag comes as Israeli and Palestinian officials continued the final-status negotiations.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority have set a mid-February deadline for reaching a framework agreement for a final peace agreement. They hope to conclude the final agreement by next September.

Negotiators of the two sides this week set an agenda for the final-status discussions, dividing the issues into the categories of Jerusalem, settlements, Palestinian refugees and final borders.

Sunday night’s Barak-Arafat meeting was part of discussions they have pledged to hold at regular intervals in order “to advance the negotiations,” the Prime Minister’s Office said.

During that meeting, Barak protested remarks that Arafat’s wife, Suha, made during an event last week in Ramallah that was attended by U.S. first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

At that event, Suha Arafat accused Israel of poisoning the Palestinian population.

In a statement issued after the Sunday night meeting, Barak said such comments by leading Palestinian figures “do not contribute to the atmosphere necessary for the success of the negotiations.”

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