Israelis and the PLO Get Down to Business

Two tracks of Palestinian-autonomy talks begin in Egypt

DEFYING powerful opponents and the formidable burden of history, Israel and the Palestinians are now moving with deliberate speed toward implementing the terms of the autonomy agreement they signed Sept. 13.

As two tracks of talks opened in Egypt Oct. 13, both sides showed a rare determination to stick to the tight, demanding schedule they have set for themselves.

``This is a clear sign that the participants mean business,'' said one European diplomat of the accelerated pace of events in advance of the Oct. 13 talks. ``The political legwork has been done. Now it is time for the politicians to step aside and let the technicians take over.''

In advance of the Egypt talks, the Palestine Liberation Organization Central Council met in Tunis late Oct. 11 and voted 63 to 8 to approve the Israeli-PLO agreement. The vote, which followed two days of often acrimonious debate and saw numerous council members resign in protest, represented a major victory for PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and paved the way for the two tracks of negotiations.

The first track of the talks, opening in Cairo Oct. 13, will monitor progress on the other tracks, including bilateral negotiations scheduled to resume in Washington, and the long-term implementation of the autonomy plan. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and PLO shuttle-diplomat Mahmoud Abbas, both of whom were active in back-channel negotiations that led to the accord, were expected to lead the two delegations.

Negotiations over the release of most of the 11,500 Palestinian security prisoners now in Israeli jails will be a central feature of the Cairo talks. Israeli Police Minister Moshe Shahal said Oct. 11 that the Israeli prisons service had begun a process of reviewing the files of all Palestinian prisoners in the event of a mass release.

The Israeli press has been reporting that at least 700 prisoners will be freed initially. Israel, however, will seek assurances that hundreds of Palestinian ``collaborators,'' now under Israeli military protection, can safely return to their homes at the same time.

The reports of an impending prisoner release have sparked demonstrations in West Bank streets and prompted some imprisoned Palestinians to desert radical Islamist groups for the PLO, in the hope of winning their freedom.

The second track, set in the resort city of Taba on the Egyptian-Israeli border, will focus on technical aspects of the Israeli military withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho.

The Sept. 13 accord requires the Israelis and Palestinians to agree to a timetable for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and Jericho by Dec. 13, a process that must be completed by April 13.

The Taba talks also will deal with security arrangements for Jewish settlers in Gaza and the West Bank; passage of Palestinians between Gaza, Israel, and the West Bank; coastal security and procedures at the international crossings of Egypt-Gaza and Jericho-Jordan.

The two sides will be represented in Taba by teams of military experts and policy planners who are charged with the sensitive task of finalizing security arrangements for residents of the two areas, including the more than 4,000 Israeli settlers currently living in Gaza.

``The Taba talks will be a signpost,'' says Nasif Hitti, a senior official of the Arab League in Cairo, which has tentatively endorsed the autonomy agreement. ``If they are successful, it will send a message that will have greater importance than the talks themselves.

``It is important to consolidate this agreement by providing some tangible results, by putting some meat on the bones,'' Mr. Hitti says. ``We consider this [round of talks] to be an important beginning.''

APALESTINIAN police force, currently being trained in Jordan and Egypt, will be deployed in place of the Israeli authorities.

Israel says the accord gives it sole control of international border crossings and allows it to continue restricting Palestinian entry into Israel according to security criteria. But the Palestinians say the agreement calls for an Arab police presence at the international crossings and a restoration of the free flow of people and goods between Gaza and the West Bank.

``There is no doubt that the schedule is relatively tight, but it is feasible to conclude the negotiations if both sides are well prepared,'' says Reserve Brig. Gen. Ephraim Sneh, a former Israeli military governor of the West Bank.

The optimism that has greeted this new chapter in Israeli-Palestinian relations has been tempered by the growing determination of forces on both sides to resist implementation of the accord.

Earlier this week Palestinian groups opposed to the rapprochement met in the Syrian capital of Damascus to forge a united front against what they described as a ``sellout'' of the Palestinian position.

At their meeting in Tunis Oct. 11, senior PLO officials announced that the Palestine National Council, the chief decisionmaking body in the organization, would not be convened to discuss the autonomy proposal, reportedly because of concerns that it might fail to reach a clear decision in favor of the initiative.

* Elaine Fletcher contributed to this report from Jerusalem.

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