Israel, PLO to Press Ahead On West Bank's Future

ENCOURAGED by their success in making the West Bank town of Jericho and the Gaza Strip autonomous, Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed yesterday to press ahead next week with talks on the future of the rest of the West Bank.

But the two sides are approaching the upcoming negotiations at very different speeds.

For Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, stung by criticism that the autonomy deal he signed makes him little more than a mayor, time is of the essence as he seeks to extend his authority.

Flushed with the excitement of his five-day visit to Gaza and Jericho, Mr. Arafat demanded in talks with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Paris on Wednesday that Israeli troops pull out of West Bank towns by next month.

``Arafat is telling Rabin that he is back home now, let's end it [the Israeli occupation] now, let's have a normal life,'' says Palestinian political analyst Mahdi Abdul-Hadi. ``He is saying there is no need for the Israelis' worries.''

Mr. Rabin, however, is not convinced. In a speech on Wednesday accepting the UNESCO peace prize that he shared with his Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and with Arafat, Rabin cautioned that ``because extremists on both sides are lying in wait for us ... at every step we must think, consider, weigh, check, and beware.''

Given the complications of making the West Bank autonomous while 120,000 Jewish settlers remain in their homes there, ``all this talk of moving ahead quickly is counterproductive,'' argued Uri Dromi, head of the Israeli Government Press Office. ``We prefer something that moves slowly, but which works.''

After 24 hours of talks in Paris, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, led by Arafat and Rabin, agreed to start talks in Cairo next Monday on ``early empowerment'' for Palestinians in the West Bank outside of Jericho.

One committee will negotiate the transfer of responsibility to Palestinians for taxation, tourism, education, health, and agriculture, and it also will work out the details of planned elections to a Palestinian Autonomy Council. ``Arafat emphasized that he was insistent that there be elections,'' Rabin said after his meeting with the PLO leader, ``so we will deal with this issue.''

UNDER the peace accord worked out in Oslo last year, elections were due to be held this month, but delays in implementing autonomy have meant that no vote is likely before the end of the year, Palestinian officials have said.

Although some observers have suggested that Arafat's chief political rival - the radical Islamist Hamas - could pose a serious challenge in elections, the vote is key to the autonomy process, because the Israeli Army is committed to redeploying to rural West Bank areas on the eve of the poll.

While Israel wants to limit autonomy in the West Bank to the five areas included in early empowerment, the PLO is anxious that its policemen should deploy throughout the area as quickly as possible, to impose the Palestinian Authority's fiat.

``The main difference between us is over the police, who is in charge of running internal security, and that is the key to all the rest,'' Israeli government spokesman Mr. Dromi says. With Jewish settlements dotted all over the West Bank, the potential for friction is much greater than in Gaza and settler apprehensions consequently greater.

A second committee in Cairo, also due to meet Monday, will address issues left unresolved by the May 4 agreement that launched autonomy - principally the release of remaining Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, the exact size of autonomous Jericho, and whether a Palestinian policeman will be stationed on the bridge leading from Jericho across the Jordan river to Jordan.

Arafat and Rabin also agreed to issue invitations to the Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers to a meeting with their Israeli and Palestinian counterparts, to discuss the future of Palestinians who were made refugees by the 1967 Six-Day War.

Those displaced persons and their offspring, most of whom live in Jordan and Egypt, may be allowed to return to their homes in the West Bank and Gaza under the autonomy accord.

The return of Palestinian refugees is a sensitive issue for Israelis, but the government was reassured by the way Israelis accepted Arafat's recent visit. ``The Israeli public watched him, was open to hearing him, but was more or less apathetic,'' said Israeli political commentator Yoel Marcus. ``It was as though the enemy had suddenly disappeared.''

Right-wing opposition parties managed to bring about 100,000 demonstrators out in Jerusalem during Arafat's visit, to protest any intention he might have of visiting the holy city. But the peace process itself, and continued talks with the PLO, enjoy solid support among Israelis, according to recent polls.

Asked in Paris about plans to pray in Jerusalem, Arafat said that was ``not on my schedule.''

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