Netanyahu and Arafat to meet, Hebron deal near
JERUSALEM (AP) _ Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat were prepared today to close a deal withdrawing Israeli troops from most of the volatile city of Hebron and set dates for their removal from rural West Bank areas.
Netanyahu and the Palestinian leader tentatively were scheduled to meet at midnight at the Erez Crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
``I think it’s the finish,″ U.S. Consul General Edward G. Abington said.
Israeli officials said the two leaders would have to deal with several issues lower-level negotiators were unable to settle.
The U.S.-brokered negotiations began in October to prod along an Israeli withdrawal from 80 percent of Hebron that was scheduled for last March. About 130,000 Palestinians and 500 Jewish settlers live in Hebron, the last West Bank city under Israeli control.
Once Arafat and Netanyahu wrap up a deal, it is to be initialed by the chief negotiators from both sides, then be presented to both Cabinets for approval. Netanyahu faces a hardliner revolt, with seven of his 18 Cabinet ministers saying they will vote against the agreement and two more wavering.
King Hussein expected the Hebron deal to be signed tonight, according to Israeli Finance Minister Dan Meridor, who was holding talks today in Jordan and spoke with reporters in the Jordanian capital, Amman.
Signed Hebron and West Bank withdrawal agreements would boost the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, troubled since Netanyahu’s May election.
Netanyahu for the first time would be personally committed to a Hebron pullback and a staged withdrawal in the West Bank.
As opposition leader, Netanyahu staunchly opposed the peace agreements negotiated by his dovish predecessors. After taking office, he said he would honor the accords but had many reservations _ a shift that angered many Jewish settlers.
``Netanyahu is on the verge of making a pact with the devil,″ said David Wilder, a spokesman for the Hebron settlers. ``If he goes through with this, he will place all of our lives in severe jeopardy.″
Palestinians, meanwhile, were preparing for the Israeli pullout. Hebron merchants painted over political graffiti on iron storefront shutters in the downtown Bab Izawiya area. Bab Izawiya was the scene of frequent clashes between Palestinian stone throwers and Israeli troops.
``We want to make our city clean and tidy, and get ready for redeployment,″ said Nidal Tamimi, a city spokesman.
Since October, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have drafted an agreement on the Hebron troop redeployment and have agreed to a timetable for a three-stage Israeli troop withdrawal from West Bank rural areas.
Under a compromise brokered earlier this week by Jordan’s King Hussein, Arafat agreed to allow Israel to complete the withdrawal by August 1998, rather than by September 1997, the deadline set in the autonomy accords.
Because of the deep distrust between the Palestinians and Netanyahu’s government, the United States has agreed to attach so-called ``notes for the record″ to the accord.
Monday’s talks on the U.S. guarantees reportedly were so heated that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators and U.S. mediator Dennis Ross yelled at each other at times.
The list is expected to mention Israel’s pledge to release Palestinian prisoners, to open a ``safe passage″ between the West Bank and Gaza Strip and allow operation of a Palestinian airport.
Israel wants the Palestinians to hand over suspects wanted for killing Israelis and revoke passages in the PLO Covenant that call for Israel’s destruction. Netanyahu maintains that an April vote by the Palestine National Council on the covenant was a subterfuge.
It was not clear today whether the disputes had been resolved or whether the two leaders would try to reach agreement tonight.
Earlier today, Netanyahu met with two key Cabinet ministers, Rafael Eitan and Zevulun Hammer. Eitan leads the Tzomet Party that ran jointly with Likud in the May elections, and Hammer heads the National Religious Party, a key coalition partner and patron of the Jewish settlement movement.
Several legislators from Tzomet and the National Religious Party have said the two parties should leave the government, a move that would deprive Netanyahu of a majority in parliament. Eitan said after that he would stick by his decision to vote against the accord, but that he heard some positive things.
Netanyahu reportedly has told Jewish settler leaders that he intended to give the Palestinians only about 10 percent more of the West Bank in the three stages of withdrawal that are to end in August 1998. Arafat now controls 27 percent of the West Bank land.