ISRAELI negotiators were met their Arab counterparts in Washington on Aug. 31 amid expectations that they would sign a deal to place the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank city of Jericho under Palestinian self-rule.
But, back at home, hopes of a far-reaching reconciliation were tainted by resentment from hard-liners and Jewish settlers. (Palestinians stunned, Page 2.)
In a five-hour Cabinet meeting that went into the early hours of Aug. 31, Israeli ministers voted 16 to 0, with two abstentions, to approve the Gaza-Jericho deal, which Foreign Minister Shimon Peres worked out in secret with officials of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
The plan would form the basis of future Palestinian authority in the West Bank, to be worked out during an interim period of probably five years. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin expressed hope that the plan also would pave the way for a peace agreement between Israel and Syria.
``It is true that Syria strategically is more important than the Palestinian issue, but solving the Palestinian problem amounts to solving the focal point of the Arab-Israeli conflict,'' he told Labor Party colleagues.
The text of the agreement has not been officially released, but Israeli newspapers published a draft on Aug. 31 that is in keeping with Mr. Rabin's recent statements.
The proposal apparently stipulates that:
r A Palestinian force will be established in the self-rule areas, but the Israeli Army will continue to be responsible for the security of Jewish settlers and other Israelis. The settlements will remain in place, but are subject to talks on final status at least two years after the arrangements go into effect.
r Election of a Palestinian council in the territories will be held within nine months.
r Discussions on the status of Jerusalem will be deferred to the talks on final status of the occupied lands.
It was not immediately clear whether the plan would propel Israel quickly into mutual recognition with the PLO, or when Palestinian refugees may be allowed to return. But officials expressed hope that a draft ``declaration of principles'' would be signed at the current round of talks in Washington, where negotiators are meeting.
``Whether it is signed at the end of the week or the beginning of next is not so important. We have waited a hundred years for this and we will wait another two or three days,'' said Haim Ramon, the health minister. Warming to the PLO
The plan reverses Israel's previous strategy of trying to bolster the Palestinian delegation, made up of leaders from the occupied territories, rather than negotiating with the PLO, which Israel has long viewed as a terrorist group.
``After more than a year of negotiations I reached the conclusion that [the delegation] just did not have the power to do it,'' Rabin said. ``They did not act without getting faxes and phone calls from Tunis.''
Israeli hard-liners have reacted ferociously. Likud Party leader Binyamnin Netanyahu said the move did not reflect the wishes of the public since Rabin did not make his intentions of negotiating with the PLO known to voters last year.
The debate is shaping up primarily around whether or not the agreement undermines Israeli security - in the short or long run. Another major question is how it will affect the 120,000 Jews who have settled in the territories.
Micha Harish, the industry minister, said Israel could still wield influence in Gaza and Jericho. ``The security risk the government of Israel is taking is very limited, with the ability to reverse [matters] because military control remains in Israeli hands and because Jerusalem is out of the picture and the settlements remain in place,'' he said.
But Mr. Netanyahu counters that the arrangement will rapidly turn into a Palestinian state. ``This is but the first stage in the PLO's plan of stages, on the way to achieving the complete liberation of Palestine,'' he warned.
Pinhas Wallerstein, a West Bank settler, is also angry. ``We have to take the gloves off now. It is our obligation to make sure this government leaves, that there will be elections and the formation of a new government,'' he said.
Foreign Minister Peres met settlers from the Jordan River Valley on Aug. 31 in a bid to allay their concerns. ``The autonomy does not include Jerusalem or the settlements,'' he told them. ``I support a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation and not an independent Palestinian state.'' With the mainstream
Despite the opposition, analysts say, Rabin is in a strong position to follow through on the plan, at least in the short term.
``The mainstream Israeli public trusts him,'' says Yehezkel Dror, a Hebrew University political scientist. A five-month closure of the territories and other security measures reinforce Rabin's hawkish credentials. ``If this agreement was the end of the story no one would lift a finger. It does not reach the hot points. But ... it is a first step.''