Israeli and Palestinian officials said they made significant progress Monday toward closing a deal over the contested West Bank city of Hebron, setting the stage for a summit meeting as soon as today to clinch the agreement.
U.S. envoy Dennis Ross expressed renewed optimism after a series of top-level meetings in which the United States pressured both sides to make concessions. Ross has shuttled among Israel, Egypt and the Gaza Strip to bridge the remaining differences over implementing Israel’s long-delayed troop redeployment in the ancient city.
That withdrawal, originally scheduled for March under the 1995 Israeli-PLO accord, would turn 80 percent of Hebron over to the Palestinians and could pump new vigor into the desperately ailing peace process.
The two sides had reported progress earlier in the day, prompting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suddenly to join a negotiating session convened in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. Both Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and Arafat’s lieutenant, Mahmoud Abbas, said they were optimistic that a deal was imminent.
Netanyahu and Arafat will talk directly today to try to wrap up the Hebron accord, said Marwan Kanafani, the spokesman of the Palestinian delegation to the talks. Ross will participate in today’s top-level negotiations, set for the Erez Crossing between Israel and the autonomous Gaza Strip, the Palestinian official said.
Monday’s optimistic comments were in stark contrast to the pessimism and mutual recrimination prevailing in recent days as negotiations over Hebron entered their 10th week. Israel has accused the Palestinians of stalling the deal, while PLO officials have countered that Netanyahu is angling to renege on promises made by the previous Labor Party government.
Ross, who met Monday evening with the Israeli prime minister, remained guarded in his comments.
“There is still a lot of work to be done,” he said. “I think there are still issues to be resolved. I think you should focus on the fact that there is more work to be done.”
The draft agreement now under review includes commitments from both sides to implement all the clauses of previous accords, according to officials close to the talks. These include an Israeli pledge to withdraw its army from rural areas in the West Bank and to release Arab prisoners. The Palestinians would pledge to finish drafting a new national charter, acknowledging in writing Israel’s right to exist, and to disarm Palestinian militants.
The negotiations have been snagged over several Israeli demands for measures designed to guarantee the security of the 400 settlers who live in the heart of Hebron, home to at least 100,000 Palestinians. But progress has also been stymied by Palestinian fears that Netanyahu will not implement Israel’s other treaty obligations once the Hebron withdrawal is carried out.
While the final draft remained elusive Monday, Israeli settlers in Hebron were defiant, accusing Netanyahu of abandoning his conservative principles.
“This agreement will not lead to peaceful co-existence between Jews and Arabs in Hebron …” said Noam Arnon, spokesman for the militant enclave.
“It is bringing a very serious and tough period to the town of Hebron.”
In Hebron, the Israeli army appeared Monday to be preparing for its redeployment. A truck removed equipment from the military governor’s headquarters, including camp beds.
Israeli military withdrawals from other West Bank cities have been carried out in a matter of hours, usually at night.