WITHIN hours of the start of the Jewish new year, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators yesterday reached a landmark agreement on extending Palestinian self-rule to large parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The deal is due to be approved by the Israeli Cabinet on Wednesday and signed at a ceremony in Washington on Thursday.
The accord opens the way for the extension of Palestinian autonomy from Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho to six major Palestinian towns on the West Bank and, eventually, to Hebron, the only Palestinian town with Jewish settlers in its midst.
It will also lead to the first democratic Palestinian elections in January or March next year to choose a council that will administer self-rule in the autonomous areas.
The accord, the second stage of the Israeli-PLO agreement signed in Washington in September 1993, could rekindle the broader Middle East peace process that has all but ground to a halt in recent months.
The agreement was initialed yesterday by Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres at a resort hotel in Taba, Egypt.
Mr. Arafat twice stormed out of the talks during the closing hours of negotiations, but was persuaded by American envoy Dennis Ross to rejoin the talks.
At the signing ceremony, Arafat lifted the 460-page agreement to the cameras and smiled broadly.
"We hope this will be the beginning of a new period in which the Palestinian people will have sovereignty over their own country and play their natural role with all the other nations of the region ... so that we can create a new Middle East in which peace and prosperity will prevail, and all the adversity will be forgotten forever," Arafat said.
Mr. Peres said that it was an "extraordinarily moving day" for the Jewish people coming on the eve of Rosh Hashana - the Jewish new year. "We feel that the Lord has offered us a real opportunity to change the course of hopelessness and desperation.
"What we are doing here today is out of our free choice. Nobody forced us. It is a historic choice, a moral choice. It is an extended hand to the future, an extended hand to our neighbors," he said.
The agreement, which contains detailed procedures to defuse feared conflict between about 135,000 Jewish settlers and about 1 million Palestinians living on the West Bank, is more than a year overdue, according to the schedule of the 1993 Israel-PLO peace accord for phased Palestinian autonomy.
Negotiations to determine the final status of the emerging Palestinian entity, the future of Jewish settlers, the status of Jerusalem, and the position of Palestinian refugees are due to begin in May next year.
Yesterday's accord also contains agreements on the release of about 5,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, the extension of water rights to the Palestinians, and voting procedures for Palestinians living in Jerusalem.
On the eve of the agreement, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said in an interview with several Israeli newspapers that he did not rule out what he referred to as a separate Palestinian "entity" becoming a future state.
But he said that the mere signing of an agreement would not "get rid of the backlog of hatred, suspicion, and bloodshed between the Arab countries, the Palestinians especially, and us.
"But the diplomatic papers are the door for a new era in which ... we will be able within 10 to 30 years to reduce the effects of the long, bitter conflict between us and the Arab countries," he said.
The new agreement will be placed before the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, on Oct. 2 in the face of strong opposition from the right-wing Likud Party. Likud leaders have threatened to reverse parts of the accord if they win November 1996 elections.
The deal is also strongly opposed by militant Islamic groups, such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. They want to create an Islamic state in the whole of Israel and the Palestinian territories.
IN recent months, it has become clear that reaching a comprehensive peace in the Middle East has become hostage to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is regarded by all sides as the core of the broader regional tension between Arabs and Jews.
The break in the deadlock between Israel and the Palestinians could improve frayed relations with Egypt and breathe new life into the one-year-old accord between Israel and Jordan, which has been moving much slower than envisaged.
Egypt, which along with the United States played a key mediating role in the often troubled talks, was the first Arab country to sign a peace accord with Israel 16 years ago.
It could also break the impasse between Israel and Syria. "I think the agreement will herald a new era in which everybody [in the region] is going to have to rethink their relations, and we very much hope that it will be the beginning of co-existence - not a continuation of conflict," said Martin Indyk, the US ambassador to Israel.