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Netanyahu, Arafat to meet tonight to finalize Hebron deal

December 31, 1996

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Negotiators today held what they hoped was the final round of talks on an Israeli troop pullback from Hebron, and said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat could meet later in the day to finalize a deal.

Israel radio said the two sides agreed in principle that Netanyahu and Arafat would would meet at 6 p.m. tonight.

Quoting a senior Palestinian security official, the radio said the two leaders could initial a draft of a Hebron agreement at the summit and hold a formal signing later in the week.

However, Arafat spokesman Nabil Abourdeneh denied the radio report, saying no meeting was scheduled yet.

Israeli government spokesman Moshe Fogel said a summit was possible today but added nothing had been scheduled yet.

In Hebron, a city of 130,000 Palestinians and 500 Jewish settlers, tensions rose as an Israeli withdrawal drew closer.

Some 15 Jewish settlers broke into a Palestinian market area before dawn Tuesday, claiming it was Jewish property. The settlers were detained. Settler leaders have said they would try to scuttle a troop redeployment.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have narrowed the gaps over Hebron, spurred by President Clinton’s Mideast envoy, Dennis Ross, who returned to the region Monday and met separately with Netanyahu and Arafat.

The remaining disagreements center on whether Israel will accept a Palestinian police presence at Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs, a shrine sacred to Muslims and Jews, and whether Netanyahu will commit to a timetable for a further troop withdrawal from West Bank rural areas.

Under the autonomy accords signed by Netanyahu’s predecessors, Israeli troops were to have withdrawn from West Bank rural areas in three stages, starting in September 1996 and ending a year later.

Netanyahu has told Arafat he was ready to begin the first stage of withdrawal within six weeks of the signing of the Hebron agreement, but has not given additional dates.

In a compromise, the Palestinians are ready settle for two stages _ one within six weeks of the signing of the Hebron agreement and the second by September 1997, Israeli radio reports said today.

Israel initially said Israeli troops could pull out of four-fifths of Hebron hours after the signing.

However, Netanyahu announced Monday he would present the deal to parliament first for approval, delaying redeployment for several days.

Netanyahu’s surprise move was designed to undercut growing right-wing criticism against him.

At least seven members of his 18-member Cabinet will either abstain or vote against the Hebron accord, Israel TV said. Some 20 legislators of Netanyahu’s ruling 66-member coalition walked out of parliament Monday during a motion of no-confidence in the government over the Hebron accord.

The final Hebron deal is likely to be signed at the home of the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, in the coastal town of Herzliya.

Update hourly