The singing ceremony is off – once again. Israel and the Palestinians held a marathon round of talks this week aimed at reaching an interim agreement on Palestinian self-rule in time for a singing ceremony Thursday in Washington.
But after a series of discussions held day and night by teams led by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, the two sides failed to reach an agreement in time for the last target date.
In an effort to deflect speculation that the talks has reached an impasse, the White House said Monday that a delay in the singing would be considered a setback.
Meanwhile, political sources in Jerusalem said a new target date for signing the completed agreement had been set for set for Sept. 28.
Although progress was made at the Red Sea resort of Taba on such issues as water rights in the West Bank and the Palestinian elections, differences over control of the West Bank town of Hebron, prevented the two sides from reaching an agreement.
But as the week wore on and the two sides reported that they had made progress on Hebron, a new sticking point emerged: Israel maps indicating planned troop redeployments in the West Bank.
The Palestinians complained that the maps threatened to “cantonize” self-rule areas into islands surrounded by Israeli-controlled areas.
The talks nearly broke down when Arafat stormed out of a session Tuesday night, charging that the Israelis were “throwing sand in the Palestinians’ eyes.”
But he agreed to return to the talks two hours later, after U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak telephoned him and urged him to return to the bargaining table.
Peres later told reporters that Arafat had misunderstood the maps.
“We don’t intend to create cantons on the West Bank,” he said.
Even as the week progressed, the sessions continued to be “difficult,” as the two sides put it.
News reports were less diplomatic, referring to frayed nerves and flaring tempers.
Also threatening the talks’ atmosphere was an Israeli decision Wednesday to impose an indefinite closure on the Gaza Strip.
The closure, which keeps thousands of Palestinian day laborers from their jobs in Israel, was imposed “for security reasons,” said Police Minister Moshe Shahal, who would not elaborate.
Israel reportedly expected terrorist attacks timed to coincide with the approaching High Holidays.
Despite the difficulties, Israeli and Palestinians officials and Wednesday that the talks were in the final stages, and what was left was for teams of experts from both sides to work out the details.
Progress on one issue at the talks – Palestinian elections – came after Israel reportedly agreed for the first time that 82 elected Palestinian representatives would serve in a body that would have legislative and executive powers.
Israel had previously insisted that the elected body have only 32 members serving in an administrative body that did not resemble a national government. Israel also reportedly agreed for the first time to let Arab residents of eastern Jerusalem participate in the elections.
In an effort to overcome the differences surrounding Hebron, Israel softened its position, saying that it was ready to cede most of the control over security arrangements in Hebron to the Palestinians, except in the areas of Jewish settlements.
But the Palestinian side, despite accepting a gradual Israel troop withdrawal in Hebron, ultimately wants the withdrawal to be complete.
It also wants Israel to declare that Hebron – along with the six other West Bank cities that will come under self-rule under the terms of the interim agreement – is a Palestinian city.
But the Palestinians dropped their demand for the immediate removal of the 450 Jewish settlers living in Hebron as a condition for signing the agreement.
Army Radio reported that Israel had offered to increase the number of Palestinian police officers stationed in the town from 200 to 250. But the Palestinians were demanding double that figure.
The Palestinian side also reportedly asked that joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols be stationed near Jewish settlements in Hebron and near the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the side of a massacre of 29 Muslims by a Jewish settler last year.
Army Radio reported that Israel rejected this demand.
As for Palestinian prisoner release, Israel agreed to increase the number of prisoners to be freed in two stages from 1,500 to 1,800. The Palestinians are demanding the release of all 5,500 prisoners they say are still in Israeli jails.
The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that the two sides agreed that Israel would have responsibility over Rachel’s Tomb, located on the outskirts of Bethlehem, as well as over the stretch of road leading from Jerusalem to the holy site.
The sides also reportedly agreed that Jews an Muslims would have free access to two other sites, Joseph’s Tomb and the Tomb of Patriarchs, and that no physical changes would be instituted at the sites without mutual consent.
And the two sides agreed to establish a committee that would notify each side of any archaeological finds.
Meanwhile, the Knesset interrupted its recess Wednesday for a special session, during which the opposition accused the government of deceiving the Israeli public by negotiating an agreement that would ultimately lead to the establishment of the Palestinian state.
In another related development, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem issued a report calling for the removal of the Jewish settlers from Hebron.
B’Tselem officials said the presence of the settlers in Hebron was responsible for continuing human rights violations there, despite the Israeli security measures put into place after the February 1994 Hebron massacre.
“It is unfathomable that 400 Jewish settlers should dictate the lives of 120,000 Palestinians in Hebron,” B’Tselem Director Yizhar Beer said at a news conference Monday in Jerusalem, where he presented the findings.
Beer maintained that the report, which reflected the group’s first public stand against Jewish settlements, was not political, but based on the assessment of their research.
Settlers leaders denounced the report, calling it a purely political statement that completely ignored human rights violations inflicted upon the Jewish residents of Hebron.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.