NEXT month, Israeli forces will begin a phased withdrawal from the West Bank to pave the way for Palestinian elections.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres announced over the weekend they had reached agreement on settling most of the issues delaying expansion of Palestinian self-rule on the West Bank.
"Both sides have made substantial concessions on key issues, and it appears that they now regard each other as partners both on political and security issues," says Khalil Shikaki, a political scientist who heads the independent Center for Palestine Research and Studies in Nablus, one of six West Bank towns due to be transferred to Palestinian control soon.
"I think you could say that the spirit of the Oslo accord [signed after secret Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in September 1993] has finally been solidified.
"The essential element of trust which was missing before is now there," says Mr. Shikaki, an adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team on the arrangements for the deployment of Palestinian police.
Under the partial agreement, Israel will still control between 64 percent and 73 percent of the West Bank, but will cede control in stages over a two-year period.
Israeli troops will begin withdrawing from six of seven Palestinian towns on the West Bank next month. The one hitch - still unresolved - is security for the West Bank town of Hebron. About 400 Jewish settlers live in the downtown area, surrounded by about 100,000 Arabs. Hebron is also home of Hamas, the Islamic group that objects to the Israeli-Palestinian self-rule accord.
Palestinians will also take over full administrative and limited security control in about 420 of an estimated 460 Palestinian villages on the West Bank. Israel will retain overall security control in the first phase.
Israel has agreed to the establishment of at least 25 Palestinian police stations on the West Bank. But the movement of Palestinian police on intercity roads will be subject to prior coordination with the Israeli authorities.
About 15,000 Palestinian police are expected to fill the vacuum left by withdrawing Israeli soldiers.
"The PLO will be responsible for public order among the Palestinians," says Israeli Foreign Ministry legal adviser Yoel Singer.
"We will be responsible for the overriding security responsibility ... for the purpose of protecting Israelis and confronting the threat of terrorism," he says.
Further Israeli withdrawal from unpopulated areas will be carried out in three stages six months apart, according to the two-page statement initialed at the weekend.
Several thousand Palestinian prisoners will also be released in three phases, beginning with the signing of the detailed agreement. A second batch will be released just before Palestinian elections are held.
Under the agreement, Arafat agreed to remove the section of the Palestinian National Covenant that calls for the destruction of Israel "within two months after the inauguration of the Palestinian Council," the body that will be set up by the elections.
The parties have yet to reach agreement on the distribution of water on the West Bank, the voting rights of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, and the size of the Palestinian Council.
A detailed 400-page agreement is now in its final stages of drafting, and outstanding issues are expected to be settled within the next few weeks. This could lead to a signing ceremony in Washington by mid-September and elections for a Palestinian Council the beginning of next year.
The Israeli Cabinet approved the agreement by 15 votes to 1 on Sunday, and Arafat briefed the Palestine Liberation Organization's Executive Committee in Tunis yesterday on the details of the accord.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, at a three-hour Cabinet meeting, reportedly told the Cabinet that the implementation of the next phase of the Oslo accord amounted to a "mighty blow to the delusion of a 'Greater Israel,' " the term used by religious and nationalist Jews who regard the West Bank as an integral part of Israel.
According to a report in the Jerusalem Post, Mr. Rabin vigorously defended the principles contained in the latest agreement.
"This process will make it difficult to return to this delusion of Greater Israel, assuming it was ever realistic in the first place.
"This government does not believe in Greater Israel nor does it want to rule another people," Rabin told the Cabinet.
The agreement is still dogged by resistance from settlers on the West Bank and Islamic groups opposed to peace with Israel.
A civil disobedience campaign by right-wing leaders of about 135,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank turned violent for the first time Sunday when settlers shot dead a Palestinian demonstrator on a hilltop near Ramallah, which earlier had been occupied by the settlers.
The Jerusalem Post, which expresses misgivings about the peace process, carried a front-page color photograph yesterday showing a settler taking careful aim with a rifle on the hilltop. Three settlers suspected of involvement in the killing are being held by Israeli police.
In another violent act, a bomb exploded in the southern Gaza Strip Sunday. One Israeli soldier was hospitalized. No one claimed responsibility, but Islamic militants were suspected.