With a crucial last-minute assist from the United States, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed tonight to resume long-delayed land transfers in the West Bank and lay out a detailed timetable aimed at achieving a comprehensive and final peace agreement in one year.
The deal, worked out in two days of hectic diplomacy led by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, was to be signed at a ceremony Saturday evening in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik. Although it dealt mainly with troop pullouts and prisoner releases, the agreement's significance was regarded here as greater than the sum of its components. Officials expressed hope it can also restore trust between Israelis and Palestinians and help restore the momentum toward peace -- here and in Syria -- that has flagged for more than three years.
The breakthrough came in a meeting here in the Palestinian-ruled part of the Gaza Strip between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Albright, who drove down from Jerusalem with the latest Israeli positions and sealed Arafat's acceptance of a bargain.
Heeding a request from the Israelis, Albright had been reluctant to enter the negotiations directly. Ultimately, however, she plunged in with decisive mediation -- while at the same time taking pains to minimize her role by calling it that of "handmaiden."
"The significance of this achievement is clear," she said. "Working intensively, the Israelis and Palestinians solved problems together, negotiated solutions together and began to reestablish trust and confidence in each other."
Under the agreement, Israel will resume troop withdrawals from parts of the West Bank that were supposed to have been completed last spring but were suspended by former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The pullbacks are expected to begin in about a week, when an additional 7 percent of Israeli-occupied territory will be transferred to Palestinian civilian control, with Israeli forces retaining control of security. Further withdrawals are set for mid-November and next January.
Perhaps even more significantly, the accord laid out a schedule for progress toward a broad settlement on the toughest remaining differences between the two sides. By next February, Palestinians and Israelis would set a framework for determining what is known as their permanent status: the borders of each side's territory and the fate of Jewish settlements and Palestinian refugees as well as the status of Jerusalem, which both regard as their rightful capital.
And by September 2000, the accord provides, they would reach a comprehensive settlement on all outstanding questions.
That blueprint sounded ambitious to some analysts, who recalled that talks on the final status were supposed to have finished several months ago according to a timetable set in previous agreements but subsequently disregarded. But the Americans, at least, were heartened that peacemaking seemed back on track after months of inactivity.
Albright, who arrived in Israel late Thursday and immediately huddled with Prime Minister Ehud Barak for three hours, apparently played a pivotal role in resolving at least two sticky points: the number of Palestinian prisoners held for crimes against Israel to be released in the coming days, and the timetable for working out a permanent peace accord.
The Palestinians apparently bowed to Israel's insistence that it would release no more than 350 of the so-called security prisoners -- and none who had murdered Israelis.
An 11th-hour snag, apparently resolved with the Americans' help, emerged over the wording of a section of the agreement barring both sides from unilateral action -- a clause that would preclude a Palestinian declaration of independence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Israeli expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The agreement also laid the groundwork for progress on other issues that have been delayed for months or years. For the first time, it would allow free passage for Palestinians between their two main population centers, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Currently, few Palestinians have that privilege, and those who do must obtain permission from the Israelis. It would also allow Palestinians to go ahead with construction of a seaport at Gaza, which many see as a potentially critical boost for their anemic economy.
A senior Israeli negotiator said the first troop withdrawal, from several hundred square miles of the West Bank, is likely to take place Sept. 13 -- coincidentally, the sixth anniversary of the 1993 Oslo agreement that inaugurated the reconciliation between the sides.
In simple terms, the new agreement is aimed at carrying out a deal agreed to last October at Maryland's Wye River Plantation after hours of mediation by President Clinton. That accord called for withdrawal of Israeli troops from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank, which would put 40 percent of the territory under full or partial Palestinian control. But it was frozen by Netanyahu, Barak's predecessor, after the Israelis had turned over just 2 percent of the territory.
Barak was elected in May on a pledge to carry out the agreements. Soon after taking office in July, however, he launched talks aimed at refining the Wye deal.
Hockstader reported from Jerusalem.