Palestinians accept Israeli plan for partial West Bank pullout

Seven-week impasse ends over land transfer, opens way for more peace talks

January 05, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Ending a seven-week impasse, Palestinians accepted Israel's plans for the latest partial withdrawal from the occupied West Bank.

The agreement yesterday also set the stage for another pullback 2 1/2 weeks from now, which would give the Palestinians full or partial control over 40 percent of the West Bank.

Palestinians had refused to accept the plan for the scheduled withdrawal when Israel announced it in mid-November, complaining they had not been consulted on which area would be transferred. They said much of the offered land was sparsely populated and did not connect to territory already in their control. Palestinians apparently had hoped to get territory close to East Jerusalem, which they want as the capital of a future state.

Israel, backed by the United States, said it had sole discretion to decide what land would be transferred. The deadlock cast a shadow over Israeli-Palestinian relations and raised doubts whether the two sides would reach agreement on a framework for final talks to their long conflict by a mid-February deadline.

Under yesterday's deal, no change was made in the offer. However, both sides suggested that Palestinian views would be taken into consideration on the next withdrawal.

Neither Israeli nor Palestinian officials spelled out what produced the breakthrough, although a recent meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian National Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat set the stage.

Three withdrawals were called for in last year's Israeli-Palestinian accord reached at Sharm el Sheik, Egypt. The first, which came in early September, comprised 7 percent of West Bank land. The one agreed to yesterday comprises 5 percent and will be carried out within 48 hours. The third, set for Jan. 20, will comprise 6.1 percent.

Any further withdrawal would come after an agreement on the most serious issues, including borders and the status of Jerusalem.

"We have an understanding now that is satisfactory to both sides," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

His Israeli counterpart, Oded Eran, said that on the next pullback, "they [Palestinians] have many ways to say what they want."

"I listen," he added.

The deal was reached half a world away from U.S.-brokered talks between Israelis and Syrians in Shepherdstown, W. Va., but a connection seemed clear.

According to analyst Ghassan Khatib, of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, Arafat decided after weeks of stalling to accept the Israeli position because he was worried about being sidelined by the Syrian talks.

"Arafat is trying to get something before a breakthrough in the Israeli-Syrian talks. Then the chance for Palestinians to get things done would be less," Khatib said.

From Israel's standpoint, the timing of yesterday's deal could be seen as an attempt to nudge Syria forward at West Virginia.

Syrian and Palestinian leaders have a bitter rivalry. Far from coordinating their negotiating positions, they appear to be in competition.

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