Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat all but clinched the elusive Hebron deal Tuesday, officials said Tuesday night, but a critical Israeli budget debate put off their final meeting until the new year.
Barring a last-minute glitch, officials said, the two leaders could meet to initial an agreement as early as today, and then hold a formal signing ceremony a day or two later at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Tel Aviv.
But there have been many glitches in the last three months of on-again, off-again negotiations, and alarm bells went off Tuesday night when Arafat and Dennis Ross, the American diplomat who is mediating the negotiations, emerged grim-faced and tight-lipped from four hours of talks in Gaza.
Netanyahu has pledged to present the agreement to his Cabinet and to Parliament. If, as political analysts say is likely, it clears those hurdles despite many conservatives’ opposition, the redeployment of Israeli troops in Hebron is expected to be completed within a week.
Hebron is the last of seven West Bank cities scheduled to come under Palestinian rule under the agreement signed in 1995.
But from the outset, the city has posed a special problem because Israel is not prepared to evict some 450 militant Jews who live there.