Israel has set a target date of Oct. 1 to resume turning over areas of the West Bank to Palestinian control but still wants the Palestinians to agree to a delay in the final stage of the negotiated troop withdrawals, Prime Minister Ehud Barak said today.
Characteristically cautious, Barak did not fix an exact timetable for the next Israeli pullback. In a statement released after the government's weekly cabinet meeting, he said that Oct. 1 is merely an "emerging possibility." Moreover, his aides said that at this point he means to hand over only some of the land Israel has pledged to shift to Palestinian control, not all of it.
Nevertheless, the statement was the first sign that Barak is acceding to the wishes of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who insists that Israel immediately go forward with the withdrawals that it promised under an agreement brokered by President Clinton last fall in Wye, Md.
Resumption of Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank is intended to show "trust and goodwill" to the Palestinians, said Barak's spokeswoman, Merav Parsi-Tzadok. But she added a cautionary note: While Barak is prepared to go forward in October with the second of three pullbacks called for in the Wye agreement -- from about 5 percent of the West Bank -- he still hopes Arafat's Palestinian Authority will agree to delay the final phase, involving about 7 percent of the land, and make it part of a comprehensive land-for-peace accord with Israel.
So far, though, the Palestinians have shown no sign of flexibility on the issue of withdrawals, at least not in public. While Arafat last week authorized his aides to spend two weeks hearing out the Israeli proposals for postponement, Palestinian officials publicly scoffed at the whole process as a "waste of time."
Indeed, talks on the Wye accord held today between Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and his Israeli counterpart, Gilead Sher, ended in what a Palestinian official called "real crisis," the Associated Press reported. "The difference was over the timetable, the content of implementation and the manner of implementation," the official added.
For its part, the Israeli government says it set the Oct. 1 target for practical reasons; an earlier withdrawal would be logistically difficult because several major Jewish holidays fall in September.
Barak inherited the Wye agreement from his predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu, and he has said repeatedly he intends to carry it out. The only question, he insists, is the timing. Under the Wye pact, Israel pledged to withdraw from a further 13 percent of the West Bank, thus raising to 40 percent the amount of West Bank land controlled fully or partially by the Palestinians. The withdrawals were to have been completed by last spring.
Netanyahu signed the deal in October and went ahead the following month with the first and smallest of three scheduled withdrawals -- from roughly 1 percent of the territory. That triggered a political revolt among his hard-line allies. In response, Netanyahu froze implementation in early December and accused the Palestinians of failing to live up to their end of the deal -- principally, fighting anti-Israeli terrorism. The uproar eventually toppled Netanyahu's government and led to new elections, which Barak and his allies won in May.
Barak has been reluctant to resume the withdrawals immediately for several reasons. One is his general objection to the notion of relinquishing control of land before an overall peace deal is reached. More specifically, Barak is said to fear that piecemeal troop pullbacks will leave more than a dozen small Jewish settlements in the West Bank isolated and vulnerable to terrorist attacks, which could derail peace talks altogether. Barak, analysts say, would rather wait for a broad peace deal and absorb the smaller and more remote settlements into large and well-guarded ones.
He also may fear the political fallout that is likely to accompany incremental pullbacks, each of which could leave him in a weaker position to reach the overall deal with the Palestinians that he says he wants.
On the other hand, it will be up to Barak to judge the Palestinians' compliance with the Wye accord, which required them to crack down on terrorist groups operating from Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- a pledge many observers believe they have fulfilled.
But the Palestinians have further obligations: to seize illegal weapons, slash the size of their security forces and crack down on hate-filled and provocative language in their media. In those areas, the Palestinians have yet to make much progress, analysts say.
Barak has said little thus far about how the Palestinians have measured up to their commitments under the Wye compact. He is loath to follow in the footsteps of Netanyahu, who cited the Palestinians' alleged shortcomings as cause for freezing the Israeli troop withdrawals. But if he remains opposed to carrying out the last of the Wye withdrawals before a comprehensive peace settlement is reached, Barak could make an issue of Palestinian transgressions.