Israeli and Palestinian negotiators neared agreement on reviving long-stalled Middle East peacemaking tonight as they raced to conclude a new accord in time for a signing ceremony today with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.
Albright has said she does not intend to mediate during her current Middle East trip, which began in Morocco Wednesday night, so Palestinian and Israeli officials were treating a four-way meeting scheduled later today with her and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Alexandria as a deadline for agreement. Albright plans to visit Jerusalem as well, and then move on to Syria Saturday in an effort to revive separate -- but also stalled -- talks between Israel and President Hafez Assad's government in Damascus.
The talks in Jerusalem have revolved around terms under which Israel would resume transferring West Bank land to Palestinian control in return for progress toward a broad, permanent peace pact. But beyond the specifics over which negotiators haggled into the wee hours, an accord also promises to restore momentum toward Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation after several years of fitful and often bitter delays.
As negotiations dragged on, the chief remaining difference between the two sides seemed almost minuscule given the stakes. The Palestinians demanded that 400 prisoners accused of anti-Israeli acts be released from Israeli jails. The Israelis insisted that no more than 350 would be set free -- and that no one held for murdering Israelis would be among them. Some, however, would be Palestinians convicted of murdering Palestinians they suspected of collaborating with Israel.
Brinkmanship was the order of the day. Shortly after noon, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced that as far as he was concerned, the negotiations had ended in failure -- only to reverse himself and apologize later to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. President Clinton, meanwhile, telephoned Arafat to urge him to make a deal, whereupon Arafat cut short a trip to Holland and flew back to the Middle East.
As midnight came and went, the talks continued. "This is like theater. . . . There has to be this drama before the end," said David Makovsky, executive editor of the Jerusalem Post. "It's rooted, in my view, in a sense that each side wants to demonstrate to its public that they went to the mat and attained the maximum."
The weary chief negotiators, Israeli lawyer Gilad Sher and Palestinian Saeb Erekat, said they had gone sleepless for 48 hours while arguing over the prisoner release and details of a new timetable for a sweeping peace accord. As usual in the Middle East, though, the issue of land was at the heart of the matter.
The territory immediately in dispute -- more than 1,000 square miles of the West Bank -- was to have been transferred from Israeli control to that of Arafat's autonomous Palestinian Authority by last March under a deal brokered by Clinton at Maryland's Wye River Plantation last October. But Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu froze implementation of that deal -- itself an attempt to restore movement to a previous land transfer deal -- and accused the Palestinians of not doing enough to fight Arab terrorist attacks on Israelis.
Barak, who succeeded Netanyahu in July, promised during his election campaign to resume land transfers. Once in office, however, he insisted on renegotiating part of the Wye agreement. His chief goal has been to link resumption of Israeli troop withdrawals and land transfers in the West Bank -- in his view, a politically costly interim step -- to progress toward a permanent peace deal.
After weeks of recrimination followed by lengthy negotiations, that goal seemed close tonight. In a statement released in the Netherlands this afternoon, Arafat said he hoped for an agreement, "possibly in the next few hours."
A key Israeli negotiator went even further: "We've practically finished the negotiating process," he said.
Both sides offered compromises. They appeared close to agreement on a rough blueprint for a permanent peace accord by next February, although there was still quibbling over the precise dates and terminology.
The parties also were reported to have agreed to set Sept. 10, 2000 -- later than the Palestinians wanted but earlier than the Israelis hoped -- as the date by which the permanent peace deal would be wrapped up. That agreement would establish borders between the two peoples and determine the fate of Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees and the future status of Jerusalem, which both sides regard as their capital.
In all probability, it would also set the stage for a Palestinian state.
Barak has said that if the new deal is not concluded, he is prepared to implement the Wye agreement "as written." That is what the Palestinians have been demanding, but aides to Barak say privately they believe the Wye accord is a bad bargain for both sides -- too concerned with peripheral security demands on the Palestinians and not adequately linked to progress toward a final peace deal.
Were they to stick inflexibly to the letter of the Wye agreement, the aides say, they could make life miserable for the Palestinians while at the same time jeopardizing the peace process.
Pared down to its essentials, the Israeli strategy has been to offer the Palestinians enough sweeteners to the Wye agreement -- including choicer chunks of territory in the West Bank and the release of more security prisoners than Netanyahu had promised -- to induce them to agree to a slower timetable of land transfers than laid out in the accord. Israeli troop withdrawals from the West Bank would resume in the coming weeks, but with the pullout from the largest parcel of land reserved until early next year.
As negotiations went down to the wire, the difference between the negotiators over the prisoner releases seemed small, but it packs a powerful emotional punch for both sides. Palestinians were bitterly disappointed last fall when Israel released 250 prisoners -- only to discover that 152 were common criminals, including car thieves. The Palestinians insist on the liberation of more prominent prisoners including members of militant organizations.
Staff writer John Lancaster with Albright in Rabat, Morocco, contributed to this report.
Israeli-Palestinian Quest for Peace
Israel agreed in 1993, in the Oslo Declaration of Principles, that it would gradually turn over parts of the Gaza Strip and West Bank to Palestinian control, granting Palestinian self-rule. But implementation of the accord, which was to be completed by last May, has been delayed. Here is a look at where it stands:
* By the end of 1995, Israeli forces had turned over control of most of Gaza and six West Bank cities. But withdrawal from Hebron was delayed after a series of suicide bombing attacks agaisnt Israelis.
* After the conservative government of Binyamin Netanyahu took office in May 1996, Israel halted withdrawals.
* In January 1997, Israel agreed to pull most of its troops out of Hebron and a number of West Bank villages.
* Last summer, at Wye River Plantation, Israel agreed to turn over another 13 percent of West Bank territory in three phases; only phase one has been implemented.
* Self-rule has been accomplished in parts of the West Bank and Gaza, creating a leopard-skin map of scattered areas surrounded by Israeli-controlled areas.
Problems to Be Resolved
* The final status of Jerusalem, claimed by both Israelis and the Palestinians as their capital.
* The question of Palestinian statehood.
* Final borders of Palestinian and Israeli areas, the fate of Israeli settlements, as well as that of Palestinian refugees.