Sides Split on West Bank Pullback
JERUSALEM (AP) _ The chief Palestinian negotiator insisted today that Israel resume a West Bank troop withdrawal in September, while Israeli officials said the pullback could only begin in October, after Palestinians fulfill their peace obligations.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has asked Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to postpone a visit to the region until the dispute over the implementation of the Wye River land-for-security agreement has been settled, said Yoav Koren, an aide to Israeli Cabinet Minister Haim Ramon.
Albright had been expected in the Middle East later this week, but the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said she has pushed back her trip until September.
Under the U.S.-brokered Wye accord, Israel is to withdraw from 13.1 percent of the West Bank in three stages over three months. Barak’s hard-line predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, suspended the accord, citing Palestinian violations, after pulling back troops from 2 percent of the region.
Barak said he has told Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that implementation of the accord would resume in September.
The latest dispute between Israel and the Palestinians appeared to stem from different interpretations of what Barak meant by that.
Erekat told The Associated Press the Palestinians understood that Barak was willing to resume the phased troop withdrawal in September.
However, Barak and his aides said that under the Wye timetable, the Palestinians first had to meet some of their security obligations, such as confiscating illegal weapons and reducing the size of their police force, and that the first withdrawal from five percent of the West Bank would begin in October.
``From the day the process starts, there are all kinds of things that the Palestinians must do,″ said Barak’s media adviser Yaakov Goldberg.
Goldberg said Barak made it very clear in meetings with Arafat and Mubarak that the countdown to the withdrawal would take 30 days.
``The prime minister said this from the beginning, and that is why we are puzzled at the Palestinian reaction,″ Goldberg said.
Barak has also proposed that the third pullback be postponed until both sides have reached agreement on the broad outlines of a permanent peace accord. The Palestinians have flatly rejected the proposal, noting that implementation of the Wye deal was long overdue and should have been completed in February 1999.
``Now that we have a new government, we expect its immediate implementation,″ Erekat said.
Erekat said the Palestinians had fulfilled most of their commitments under Wye and would do the rest once the troop withdrawal begins.
``We’re willing to start today if the Israelis will start today,″ he said.
The negotiator said Arafat and Barak have not spoken since a meeting two weeks ago, further contributing to the atmosphere of distrust.
Erekat said Arafat’s comment Sunday ``welcoming″ a September start date for Wye was based on an understanding that the withdrawal, not the countdown, would begin then.
The Wye agreement is an interim agreement en route to what are expected to be difficult final-status negotiations on thorny issues such as the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority arrested two leaders of the Islamic militant group Hamas in a weekend crackdown and released a third, said Palestinian Police Chief Ghazi Jabali.
Hamas leaders Abdel Aziz Rantisi and Ahmed Nimer were arrested Saturday night, said Jabali, who would not say why the two were arrested. Ismail Abu Shanab, also a senior Hamas official, was released Sunday after being questioned for a day and a half about an interview he gave to MBC Middle East television.
Hamas opposes peace talks with Israel and has killed scores of Israelis in attacks.