Progress reported in Mideast Agreement is near to give Palestinians authority over Gaza

August 29, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Israelis and Palestinians are close to an agreement in principle on an autonomy plan that would grant Palestinians speedy authority over the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho, a senior U.S. official said yesterday.

The plan would be the first step toward Israel's goal of reaching an interim settlement of limited self-rule for 1.7 million Palestinians in the Israeli occupied territories seized during the 1967 Middle East war. About half those Palestinians would be affected by the plan, with the other half still under full Israeli control, until further agreement is reached.

The new mood of cautious optimism followed a number of fast-breaking developments indicating that this week's round of Middle East peace talks may be more productive than any of the previous 10.

The developments included:

* A secret meeting Friday in California between Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, at which the two "previewed ideas that will be developed next week," the State Department reported. The administration's top peace-process coordinator, Dennis Ross, also spoke by telephone with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, officials said.

* Reported contacts in Scandinavia between Mr. Peres and representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization, apparently to flesh out details and bridge differences over the so-called "Gaza-Jericho-first" plan.

* Formal agreement among Arab foreign ministers yesterday in Beirut, Lebanon, to send negotiators to the next round of peace talks, and what a Washington analyst sees as Syrian willingness to allow Israeli-Palestinian talks to accelerate.

* A two-day emergency meeting of the PLO executive committee in Tunisia that, according to reports from the scene, appeared to ease friction between the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, and critics within the financially strapped organization over his leadership.

The signs of progress in the peace process come just weeks after the most ominous violence in the region since the Persian Gulf war -- Israeli air strikes on southern Lebanon, launched in retaliation for guerrilla rocket attacks on northern Israel. The attacks, the biggest offensive since Israeli forces invaded Lebanon in 1982, displaced tens of thousands of civilians.

Confirming the Christopher-Peres meeting, State Department spokesman Michael McCurry said in a statement yesterday that the two men "and others" met for four hours Friday at Mugu Naval Air Station in Oxnard, Calif.

They "previewed ideas that will be developed next week when the Mideast peace negotiations resume in Washington," he said.

"I cannot provide additional details about this conversation other than to say it makes clear that the parties in the region are focusing on the choices and planning that could make real progress in these negotiations possible."

Mr. Christopher, who had been vacationing in Santa Barbara, Calif., was joined by Mr. Ross.

A basis for a declaration

At the end of the last round of negotiations, U.S. officials presented Israelis and Palestinians with a proposal to serve as a basis for a joint declaration of principles and encouraged both sides to contribute ideas. Additional progress was made on Mr. Christopher's early August trip through the region.

Since then, Mr. Peres and PLO officials reportedly have talked directly and moved the process toward what a U.S. official said yesterday may be "the basis for a concrete agreement on principles."

"An agreement in principle may be near," the official said.

Mr. Christopher has discussed the prospect of raising "a couple of hundred million" dollars from other governments to help get a Palestinian autonomy plan off the ground, an official said.

The "Gaza-Jericho-first" plan, pressed by Mr. Peres, has yet to be publicly endorsed by Mr. Rabin, although a clearer indication of the Israeli government view may emerge after a Cabinet meeting today.

Clinton administration officials say, however, that Mr. Peres "is acting with the full knowledge of the Israeli government, including the prime minister."

Mr. Rabin, who has focused his own efforts on reaching a deal with Syria over the Golan Heights, is prepared for now to have Mr. Peres "take the heat" on a deal with the Palestinians, according to Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"If it sticks, then Rabin can take it to the people," Mr. Satloff said.

Within the Palestinian camp, radical opponents an agreement "have not begun to fight," Mr. Satloff said.

Until the last few days, there appeared to be wide gaps between how Israelis and the PLO viewed the concept of autonomy in the occupied lands generally and Palestinian authority over impoverished Gaza and the town of Jericho near the Jordan River.

Israeli diplomatic sources describe the "Gaza-Jericho-first" plan as a "quick demonstration" of how authority would be transferred from Israel to Palestinians in a five-year interim autonomy agreement.

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