Israeli and Palestinian leaders overcame a major hurdle Tuesday in negotiations for expanding Palestinian self-rule by setting a general timetable for Israel's troop withdrawal from parts of the occupied West Bank.
The agreement for a staged Israeli army redeployment over 18 months marks the biggest breakthrough since the two sides began marathon negotiations about three weeks ago to continue implementing the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. But it leaves many important issues unresolved.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat reached the accord on withdrawal in talks Monday and Tuesday in the Egyptian resort of Taba.
The deal meets the Palestinians' demand for a timetable for redeployment but at a slower pace than they had sought. Under the smoothest of circumstances, the Israelis would not complete the redeployment before mid-1997.
Peres and Arafat had agreed in July that Israeli soldiers would leave at least four towns--Janin, Nablus, Qalqiliya and Tulkarm--before Palestinian elections are held late this year.
Ahmed Korei, the Palestinians' chief negotiator, said Israel will then withdraw its troops from other parts of the West Bank in three six-month stages. "We agreed that redeployments after elections will take place every six months instead of [the Palestinian proposal of] three," he told reporters in Taba.
The two sides have not yet agreed on a detailed map for redeployment--how far away from towns and villages Israeli troops will move and exactly what lands will be in Palestinian hands. This is certain to be a difficult part of the negotiations.
Under the peace accord, Arafat took control of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho in July, 1994, and was supposed to have more power by now. The whole peace process is about two years behind schedule.
Nonetheless, the latest agreement moves Palestinians a step closer to their goal of controlling most of the West Bank lands that were captured by the Israelis in the 1967 Middle East War.
Atayeb Abdel Rahim, secretary general of the governing Palestinian Authority, told Palestinian radio this week that the aim of the self-rule authority is a West Bank in which Palestinian control is the rule and Israeli dominion the exception.
Negotiations have intensified since Peres and Arafat failed to meet their July 25 deadline for an agreement on the second stage of redeployment and after a July 24 bus bombing in Ramat Gan that killed six Israelis and wounded 31.
Teams of negotiators have been at work for weeks. Arafat and Peres met Monday, then Arafat flew to Alexandria, Egypt, to consult with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak early Tuesday before resuming talks with Peres in the afternoon.
"There are still some obstacles, and we hope that both of us will have the ability to overcome them, bypass them and reach acceptable results," Arafat said after meeting with Mubarak.
Still in dispute is when the Israelis will withdraw from Ramallah and Bethlehem--two towns close to Jerusalem--and from Hebron, where about 400 Jewish settlers live among the town's nearly 100,000 Palestinians. And the two sides have yet to resolve water rights.
One of the major issues still outstanding appears to be possession of uninhabited state lands. Israel reportedly wants to tie Palestinian control of state lands to Palestinian success in preventing terrorism, while Palestinians believe the peace accord calls for Israel to yield all state lands in the territories, and they want a guaranteed date for the turnover.
The issue of state lands has fueled an escalation of protests by West Bank Jewish settlers, who took their demonstrations out of the West Bank on Tuesday and onto major Israeli streets and highways.
Many state lands border West Bank settlements that are home to at least 120,000 Jews. These settlers call the West Bank by its biblical name of Judea and Samaria and believe it belongs to Jews. They want to stop the hand-over.
Israeli television reported dozens injured and 100 arrested in the first settler demonstrations on the Israeli side of the "Green Line," the former border between Israel and the West Bank, before the territory's capture from Jordan in the 1967 war.
The protesters scuffled with police while blocking traffic at about 40 major intersections around the country to protest the peace accords. They occupied 10 intersections in Jerusalem alone, including the main western entrance to the city. The radio described the traffic situation as "catastrophic."
Settler leaders met with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who said the government would set up a committee to look into their demands, which include expanding settlements to accommodate growth.