Ending a weeks-long deadlock, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed today on a resumption of Israel's transfer of West Bank land to the Palestinians.
The two additional stages of Israeli troop pullbacks, the first of which is scheduled for Wednesday or Thursday and the second for Jan. 20, will leave the Palestinian Authority in full or partial control of more than 43 percent of the West Bank.
The deal fulfills a land-transfer agreement reached last fall and puts to rest speculation that Israel planned to freeze progress on negotiations with the Palestinians while it is conducting intensive talks with the Syrians. "We are parallel on tracks and that's the way it should be viewed," said Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian negotiator. "I don't think there's any way of playing one track against another."
The Israeli troop withdrawals were outlined in a deal signed by the two sides last September. An initial Israeli pullback that month went off without a hitch, but the Palestinians balked when they saw maps of the land Israel planned to turn over in the next phase, which was to take place by Nov. 15. The land Israel proposed to vacate was mostly empty desert; the Palestinians said they expected to take control of Arab villages and neighborhoods near Jerusalem. Israel froze the deal while negotiations continued.
The Palestinians now appear to have acceded to the Israeli maps, at least for the chunk of territory to be handed over this week. However, the Palestinians said they are content with the deal, suggesting Israelis may have made some adjustments in the maps for the next pullback. The agreement "is satisfactory to both of us," said Oded Eran, the chief Israeli negotiator.
Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war. Since 1994, in fits and starts, it has been handing over parcels of land there to the Palestinian Authority, which intends to declare an independent state this year on territory it controls in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Despite ending their impasse today, Israeli and Palestinian representatives reported no progress toward a larger and far more ambitious goal set last fall--reaching a sweeping framework agreement on permanent peace by mid-February. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister, agreed last September in Egypt that they would draft a blueprint to end their disputes over borders, water, refugees, Jerusalem and Jewish settlements in occupied territories by Feb. 13. But there has been little reported progress toward such a comprehensive agreement. And many analysts here, Israeli and Palestinian, believe it cannot be achieved by the deadline.
Many Palestinians, in particular, have worried that the Israeli public cannot swallow simultaneous breakthroughs--and territorial concessions--on both the Palestinian and Syrian peace tracks. Erekat insisted it is still possible, but he laid the onus squarely on Barak's shoulders.
"This depends on the political decision of the Israeli side," he said.
The deal on land transfers is comparatively more simple. Either Wednesday or Thursday, Israel will place 2 percent more of the West Bank under total Palestinian control. A further 3 percent will be shifted to Palestinian civil control, with Israel maintaining troop patrols. The land to be transferred includes bits of territory around Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem, and the Palestinian city of Jenin in the northern West Bank. The next move will take place Jan. 20, when Israeli troops and bases will be removed entirely from an additional 6.1 percent of the West Bank.
That will leave the Palestinians with exclusive control of 18.2 percent of the land. A further 25 percent will be administered by Palestinian civil authorities, although Israel will retain some military presence and security supervision for the time being.