After prolonged and painful labor, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat completed a long-awaited accord early this morning to pull back Israeli forces from the city of Hebron and the rural West Bank.
Initialed about 2 a.m. at a stark concrete border post, the agreement was a historic turning point in Israeli politics and in the tortuous efforts of Israelis and Palestinians to reach territorial compromise.
The unlikely partners, distrustful to the end and accompanied by U.S. special envoy Dennis Ross, emerged and shook hands coolly after more than two hours of talks.
Although not much more in substance than a revised commitment to pacts reached long before, the deal was the first for Netanyahu and his governing Likud party with the Palestinians and a painful departure from Likud’s bedrock ideals.
Netanyahu committed his government to transfer land and limited governing power to Arafat - four-fifths of Hebron immediately, and substantial chunks of the rural West Bank by the middle of next year.
Arafat, for his part, renewed unkept promises to extradite suspects wanted by Israel on criminal charges and to rewrite the Palestinian Covenant to expunge calls for Israel’s destruction.
After reaching their accord, the two men passed cellular phones back and forth while placing joint telephone calls to President Clinton, Jordan’s King Hussein and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
In Washington, Clinton told a White House briefing that the Hebron accord “brings us another step closer to a lasting, secure Middle East peace. Once again the Israelis and the Palestinians have shown they can resolve their differences. … Once again the forces of peace have prevailed over a history of division.”
Both leaders are expected to submit the accord to their Cabinets today and an Israeli parliamentary vote should come this week.
The accord calls for Israeli troops to depart most of Hebron within 10 days, finally completing a withdrawal from the West Bank’s six largest towns that was begun in 1995. But Israel’s army is skittish about a prolonged twilight period there, and senior officers said they could, and would, complete their evacuation within 48 hours of receiving the order.
The text of the Hebron agreement itself has been finished for nearly two weeks. It divides the city of 130,000 Palestinians and 450 Jewish settlers into two spheres of control, with Israel’s army holding about one-fifth of the territory.
Netanyahu sought basic changes in the framework agreed 15 months ago by then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, but settled for small amendments such as limiting Palestinian police to short-barreled Ingram submachine guns.
Arafat sought assurances - and schedules - for Israeli obligations, such as opening a “safe passage” between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, permitting Palestinians to operate a seaport and airport in Gaza, releasing Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails and above all, withdrawing from the rural West Bank.
As reciprocal commitments from Arafat, in addition to extradition of wanted suspects and revision of the Palestinian Covenant, Netanyahu sought the reduction of Palestinian police forces from numbers far exceeding those agreed on earlier.
All those issues, both sides said, were settled before the two men sat down this morning, although a few small points of language remained for Netanyahu and Arafat to decide. Their agreements have been drafted in a “Note for the Record” to be signed by the American mediators, but not by the parties themselves.
The final talks over the last details of the agreement, participants said, led to some emotional fireworks.
Even Ross, the icy-veined special Middle East coordinator under presidents Clinton and George Bush, joined a shouting match at the Laromme Hotel Monday between Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Israeli Yitzhak Molcho.
“It got pretty hot and heavy,” said one participant. “I think it was a combination of expectations that it would be finished on the Israeli and American sides, and crabbiness, exhaustion, lack of food on the part of the Palestinians because of Ramadan. Everybody had a good shout and settled down.”