Despite Yasser Arafat’s dramatic last-minute walk-out from peace negotiations, Israelis and Palestinians initialed a historic accord Sunday that will pull Israel’s troops out of West Bank cities, towns and villages and expand Palestinian self-rule there.
“The era of sadness and occupation will end,” Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said as he sat beside the Palestinian leader and witnessed the initialing by their aides in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba.
The agreement, produced after 18 months of hard-fought negotiating, “is history in the real meaning of the word,” Peres said. “It is a tremendous attempt to bring people that were born in the same cradle, who were fighting on the same fronts, to agree on a new future.”
The pact covers the second phase of Palestinian self-rule, which applies to parts of the West Bank still under Israeli occupation. An agreement on the first phase, covering the Gaza Strip and the West bank town of Jericho, was signed in Cairo in May.
Shortly after the agreement was initialed Sunday, President Clinton invited Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat to the White House on Thursday for a formal signing ceremony. Jordan’s King Hussein, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Peres also are expected to attend.
An enthusiastic Clinton, speaking to reporters at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., called the pact a triumph over “the enemies of peace.”
But not everyone welcomed the accord, which includes agreements on security, water rights, some holy sites and Palestinian elections. Radical and even some moderate Palestinians as well as right-wing Israelis condemned it, with each side blaming its negotiators for selling out.
Under the agreement’s terms, Israeli troops will start pulling out of West Bank cities, towns and villages - which they have occupied for 28 years and 10 days - after Thursday’s signing in Washington.
In some West Bank towns, Palestinians demonstrated against the accord, and one Palestinian teenager reportedly was shot dead by Israeli soldiers during a clash in Nablus.
“This is a bad agreement which doesn’t meet the residents’ expectations,” said Hebron Mayor Mustafa Natsheh. Natsheh and other Hebronites unsuccessfully had pushed Arafat to insist that the 400 Jewish settlers living in the heart of ancient Hebron be evacuated as part of the accord.
Meanwhile, the Hebron settlers, who live among 120,000 Palestinians, warned that they will not obey Palestinian police who are scheduled to be deployed in large sections of the town over the next six months.
“This is a sad day, but it’s not the end of Greater Israel,” said Zvi Katzover, mayor of the Jewish settlement of Qiryat Arba on the edge of Hebron. “It sounds like a nightmare that we will have to listen to the Palestinian police, but the people are behind us and the government has no majority.”
Rabin, however, said that the accord will spell the end of the century-old Revisionist Zionist dream of building a Jewish state extending from the Mediterranean Sea to beyond the Jordan River into what is now the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
“We know where we are going - we are going toward a state of Israel as a Jewish state,” Rabin said at a news conference after the initialing. “And beside us, a Palestinian entity, not under our rule, which peacefully co-exists with us.”
The initialing was delayed for sev eral hours Sunday while U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross telephoned both Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in their hotel rooms in Taba, coaxing them over final hurdles that threatened to yet again delay the oft-delayed agreement.
Ross intervened after final negotiations between Arafat and Peres reportedly had degenerated into a shouting match which climaxed with Arafat screaming, “We are not slaves!” and storming back to his room early Sunday morning.
Peres and Arafat had spent more than 80 hours haggling over terms of the agreement during a week of grueling negotiations before finally wrapping up the accord.
Arafat’s blowup reportedly was over restrictions Israel insists on placing on the movement of Palestinian police in areas Israel will continue to control after its troops are redeployed.
But when they witnessed the initialing just hours before the Jewish New Year holiday began, the two men - haggard but calm - mustered smiles and praised each other’s efforts.
Arafat, bundled in a khaki jacket and wearing his trademark black-and-white-checked kaffiyeh headdress and cravat, wished Israelis a happy new year in Hebrew.
“We will work so that this new year will be a real year of peace,” Arafat said. “This agreement will open the door for a better future … to create a new Middle East of security and peace.”