AN Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank city of Jericho and the Gaza Strip could still be months away, Israeli officials warned yesterday, despite the agreement reached with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Cairo late Wednesday.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told Israel Radio that although the agreement on security arrangements under the planned Palestinian autonomy regime was ``an important step forward,'' autonomy would not begin ``until all the details have been agreed upon.''
That appeared to make the original target date for a complete Israeli withdrawal, April 13, quite unrealistic. A senior Israeli source close to the negotiations agreed that all the details of the autonomy plan ``will take a very, very long time - months.''
That seems more than likely, if future talks maintain the agonizingly slow pace of negotiations so far. If anyone thought that the Israelis and the Palestinians had put their past behind them when their leaders shook hands last Sept. 13, Wednesday's agreement and the way in which it was negotiated showed how sadly wrong they were. The deal was worked out ``sentence by sentence, word by word,'' says Uri Savir, director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. ``And for each word, we have an hour of argument.''
Even the security arrangements that Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat initialed Wednesday in Cairo, after two days of intense negotiations, are only general accords, Israeli officials caution.
``We initialed the principles of security issues,'' says Oded Ben Ami, Mr. Rabin's spokesman. ``Early next week, the two negotiating teams will gather in Taba [Egypt] to detail those principles. That will take a few weeks.''
Aside from the security questions, the teams in Taba will continue to negotiate the transfer of civilian authority in Gaza and Jericho to the Palestinians, and ``all sorts of issues'' remain to be dealt with, according to Col. Ami Gluska, a spokesman for the Israelis. Even in areas such as health and education, where agreement in principle has been reached, ``the fine details have yet to be worked out, and a lot of work remains to be done,'' Colonel Gluska adds.
Meanwhile, in Paris, talks on how economic relations between Israel and the Palestinian autonomous zones will be fashioned have still not resolved key questions. They could take weeks to deal with.
The 21-page document that Mr. Peres and Mr. Arafat initialed on Wednesday shows that the Palestinian leader conceded on many of the most contentious security issues, in the face of Israel's refusal to budge.
Arafat, who had originally insisted that Palestinian policemen should have sole control of the international crossing points, from Jordan to Jericho and from Egypt to Gaza, has agreed to give Israel responsibility for security at border passages. He has also accepted Israel's right to turn back any Palestinian not resident in the Gaza Strip or West Bank.
The Cairo agreement also creates three blocs of Jewish settlements and Army bases in the Gaza Strip where Israel will enjoy sole authority. That authority will extend along the main roads leading to Israel, where soldiers will have ``all necessary responsibilities and powers in order to conduct independent security activity,'' the agreement specifies.
Israeli concessions to Palestinian demands, as Rabin had promised the Israeli public, do not touch security questions. The Jericho area, whose precise definition awaits a summit between Rabin and Arafat, will include the village of Auja, important for its spring-water, for example. And Palestinian businessmen will be allowed to establish their own tourist enterprises, as well as joint ventures with Israelis, on the shore of the Dead Sea.
The complex arrangements governing border crossings are an indication of how difficult negotiations are. More than a compromise between Israel's demand for security and the Palestinians' demand for dignity, they also illustrate the deep mistrust that still permeates the negotiating atmosphere.
Even though details still remain to be worked out, the Cairo agreement is already carefully detailed on some sensitive points, obeying Prime Minister Rabin's dictum, following a misunderstanding last December with the Palestinians, that everything agreed must be in writing.