Israeli Cabinet OKs peace agreement Narrow vote sends pact to parliament

November 12, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- The Israeli Cabinet narrowly approved the newest "land-for-security" agreement last night, but added stern demands that may hamper full implementation of the accord.

After seven hours of debate by the 17-member Cabinet, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was able to win only 8 votes in favor of the pact. Four ministers voted against it and five abstained.

The agreement now goes to the Israeli parliament, which will discuss it Monday.

Since the Oct. 23 signing of the Wye River Memorandum in Washington, Netanyahu has been trying to sell the accord to his hard-line ministers. A core opposed giving the Palestinians any additional land from the West Bank, which they consider to be the biblical heartland of the Jewish people.

The Cabinet vote was delayed several times, most recently last week after a bombing in Jerusalem that killed only the two bombers.

In a bid to appease the Wye accord's opponents, the Cabinet yesterday linked its approval to Netanyahu's demand that the Palestinian National Council hold a "properly conducted vote" to rescind clauses in its charter that call for the destruction of Israel.

The Palestinians emphasize that the accord does not require a vote by the PNC, but rather a "reaffirmation" of its 1996 decision to revoke the offending articles.

The Palestinians are to convene in mid-December a meeting of the PNC and leaders of other Palestinian organizations, which President Clinton said he will attend.

When told of the Israeli Cabinet's insistence on a vote by the PNC, Ahmed Qurei, a member of the Palestinian negotiating team at the Wye summit, said the Palestinians are committed to the Wye agreement. But "we are not ready to renegotiate," he said.

"We don't operate under conditions but according to signed agreements. We respect every word in those agreements and we reject the setting of new conditions," Hassan Asfour, a senior Palestinian negotiator, told Reuters.

To ensure that the Palestinians carry out their commitments, Netanyahu also said the government will meet before each of the other stages of the agreement is carried out.

"Only when the government determines that the Palestinians have meticulously implemented and abided by their obligations will we continue to the next stage," he said in a televised address.

The Wye River accord commits Israel to give an additional 13 percent of West Bank land to the Palestinians in exchange for greater security measures taken by the government of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The withdrawal of Israeli troops from the occupied territories is to take place in three phases over 12 weeks.

The first stage of that redeployment -- from 9.1 percent of the West Bank -- will be carried out over several weeks after the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, approves the Wye agreement. David Bar-Illan, a top aide to Netanyahu, said he expects the first redeployment, which already had been delayed from its scheduled Monday completion, to begin in about a week.

Since the signing of the accord, the Palestinians have acted on several fronts to live up to their part of the agreement. They submitted a detailed security plan to the U.S. mediators of the agreement, detained Islamic militants after two bombings here and cooperated with Israeli security forces on terrorist issues.

The executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization also met and affirmed its support for canceling the sensitive clauses of the Palestinian charter.

In a gesture toward the Palestinians, Netanyahu said last night he would speed up Israeli approval of the new Palestinian airport. He said he expected it to open this week.

And he renewed his commitment to release next week the first of 700 Palestinians prisoners jailed in Israel -- those "who have no blood on their hands" and are not members of the Islamic militant Islamic group Hamas.

But he also put Arafat on notice that if he declares a Palestinian state next May 4, the date by which the 1993 Oslo accords say there should be a final agreement, Israel will respond accordingly.

In a reference to possible Israeli annexation of the West Bank, Netanyahu said "we reserve the right to apply Israeli law" to the occupied territories, security areas and the environs of Jerusalem.

While Netanyahu reaffirmed Israel's intention "to continue to implement the entire agreement," the Cabinet's decision was designed to assure the Israeli public -- especially his right-wing constituency -- that the government had not compromised the country's security or abandoned its followers in the occupied territories.

The Cabinet statement reiterated Netanyahu's commitment to expand settlements in the occupied territories and to build bypass roads to ensure safe travel for the settlers. It also repeated the government's demand that the Palestinians arrest 30 terrorist suspects over the 12-week period of the agreement.

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