The Israeli Cabinet on Sunday authorized Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to sign an agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization on self-rule for the Gaza Strip and the West Bank's Jericho district, despite increasing fears that chaos will follow Israel's withdrawal this week.
Amid warnings from its right-wing opposition that it was laying the foundation for an independent Palestinian state that would come to threaten Israel's existence, Rabin's coalition government approved the first concrete steps to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip after nearly 27 years.
Accompanied by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and two other ministers, Rabin is to fly to Cairo on Tuesday to meet with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, who was reported to have won similar backing over the weekend from the PLO Executive Committee in Tunis, Tunisia. Rabin and Arafat are scheduled to sign the accord Wednesday.
"The last issues are before us, and I am confident they will be readily resolved," Nabil Shaath, the chief PLO negotiator, said after returning from Tunis. "The leadership on each side is firmly committed to completing the agreement this week."
In Israel, however, there is growing concern that the PLO is not prepared to take over the strife-torn Gaza Strip, where Arafat's own party, Fatah, is divided into 11 feuding factions.
Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, the Israeli chief of staff, urged the Cabinet on Sunday to approve the swift evacuation of his forces from the territory, aside from the troops left to protect 4,500 Jewish settlers, so that they would not be caught up in the escalation of violence he expects.
Police Minister Moshe Shahal was equally blunt.
"We have to put down a timetable, and it should be a very short transition period," Shahal said after the Cabinet meeting. "Then we give them (the Palestinians) the keys, and we leave Gaza. This is the best thing to do."
Rabin complained at the regular Sunday Cabinet meeting, according to government officials, that virtually no provisions had been made for an organized hand-over of Gaza's administration to Palestinians appointed by the PLO.
"They are not even showing up for the meetings they have agreed to," Rabin told the Cabinet, according to an aide. "We're leaving, and we still don't know who is to take over what."
Although Israel and the PLO have agreed on the immediate entry of about 1,500 members of the new Palestine police to ensure security as Israeli forces withdraw, no arrangements have been made for their takeover of Israeli military facilities.
Nor has the PLO designated anyone to assume control of the civilian administration, according to Israeli officials, although the transition has been extensively discussed.
Environment Minister Yossi Sarid, a leading dove in the Cabinet and one of Israel's negotiators with the PLO, said the Palestinians' apparent lack of specific planning for the hand-over concerns him because it could dangerously undermine a successful start to the period of self-government.
"We urged them to be ready to step into the territories to start taking over," Sarid said after the Cabinet meeting. "Unfortunately, they didn't do that, but we are very much determined to leave as soon as possible. A week or 10 days after the agreement, we'll be out."
But Dr. Ahmad Tibi, a Jerusalem physician who serves as Arafat's special adviser on relations with Israel, rejected the criticism as unfounded, adding that liaison officials would contact the Israeli military government in Gaza today and that interim committees would "assume responsibilities in an organized way."
"There is no need for worry," Tibi said. "There won't be a vacuum when Israelis leave the Palestinian territories because Palestinians will take over immediately."
Arafat is also expected to announce formation of a Palestine National Authority to act as an interim government after the signing of the autonomy agreement. Chaired by Arafat, the authority is likely to be made up of 12 Palestinians from within the Gaza Strip and West Bank and 10 from outside.
Shaath said members of committees that will handle the transfer of power would begin arriving in Cairo today.
"I think that, once we are ready and once we know exactly what we are signing, we will be going in as soon as possible," he said.
Benjamin Netanyahu, chairman of the opposition Likud Party, warned that the agreement that Rabin and Arafat are to sign Wednesday in Cairo effectively establishes an independent Palestinian state rather than an autonomous region with limited self-rule.
With leaders of other right-wing parties, Netanyahu demanded that Rabin submit the draft agreement to the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, before signing it. A Rabin aide dismissed Netanyahu's demand with a laugh.