Israeli and Palestinian negotiators worked with American mediators through the day and into the night on Monday, reportedly poring over every dot and comma in their drafts and thus delaying for yet another day the agonizingly elusive Hebron agreement.
Despite the frustration of another day without agreement, officials on all sides said the reason now was only the final haggling over every word in the American “notes for the record” that are to accompany the Hebron agreement.
These documents are to list the unfulfilled obligations each side has under existing agreements and a timetable for further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank.
It is this latter issue that posed the last major obstacle to agreement, and that was overcome on Sunday when King Hussein of Jordan flew to Gaza and Israel with a compromise that Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel accepted.
The issue centered on a requirement in the interim agreement signed in September 1995 that Israel, after pulling out of the major Palestinian towns in the West Bank, would conduct further withdrawals in three stages, ending in September 1997.
The requirement is critical to the Palestinians because it would endow them with a considerable stake in territory even before entering “final status” talks on borders, Jerusalem and Jewish settlements.
For the same reason, Netanyahu and his rightist followers have preferred to delay the transfers, and to use land as a bargaining lever.
Arafat, lacking faith in Netanyahu’s intention to comply with the agreements, insisted the Americans guarantee that he would follow the agreed timetable. Netanyahu refused to give a final date, and the talks threatened to unravel.
Hussein’s compromise was to set a deadline of “mid-1998,” roughly a year later than required, but also a year before the “final status” talks are supposed to be concluded.
For Netanyahu, the next problem is to sell the agreement to his constituency of right-wing and religious nationalists.
Though many of them accepted that withdrawal from most of Hebron was unavoidable, they saw the further withdrawals from the West Bank as a new and dangerous step toward the dismantling of their dream of spreading Jewish control to much of the West Bank, which to them is an integral part of the biblical Land of Israel.