Big Stakes, Brinkmanship Hold Up Deal on Hebron

"Summit expected: Arafat, Netanyahu May Sign Hebron Deal Today or Tomorrow" blare the banner headlines in local newspapers.

But such headlines have been running for more than a month, baffling many who are waiting for an agreement on the long-overdue transfer of power so critical to the resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat were expected to meet yesterday, though officials on both sides said that the meeting was not sure to end in a signed deal.

This isn't the first time that Israelis and Palestinians have squabbled in 11th-hour disputes just before major agreements were signed.

The multiphase Oslo peace accords, named for the Norwegian capital where they were brokered more than three years ago, set out a structure for eventual Palestinian self-rule. So far, the implementation has been full of delays because disputes have arisen or the conditions for implementation didn't seem ripe.

But the crisis of confidence between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Arafat - as well as the leaders' fears about whether they'll be supported by their respective constituencies after the latest round of negotiations is over - has kept a deal from coming to fruition.

Last-minute brinkmanship

When Arafat was about to initial one set of the accords, for example, he set off a crisis by objecting to details in the maps just moments before the signing ceremony.

Those who work closely with him say he has a near obsession with symbols of Palestinian independence, which has led to his new demand for joint control over the Hebron shrine holy to Jews and Muslims, contrary to the agreement.

"He's concerned with the symbolic issues," says a top American official here. "He doesn't want the Palestinian police to be held up to ridicule by Palestinians. The symbolism of certain issues is causing him to hesitate."

Moreover, Arafat often sees the anticipation of the world before any major signing as an opportune moment to gain last-minute concessions, on the assumption that the expectation of a breakthrough will put added pressure on the Israelis.

In this case, Arafat and other Palestinian negotiators say they are due added bonuses to compensate for their adjustments in the redeployment arrangement. They want, among other things, a mass release of some of the 2,200 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, doesn't believe he can politically afford to concede too many issues.

While polls show that most Palestinians believe that Arafat has been taking a sufficiently hard line in negotiating with the Israelis, Netanyahu is more susceptible to rebuke.

Jewish settlers, who helped elect Netanyahu, and others on the right wing are crying betrayal, while his left-wing predecessors blame him for unnecessary foot-dragging in favor of making "cosmetic" changes rather than real security improvements.

Cabinet troubles

Israeli media reports now estimate that Netanyahu can only count on 11 of his 18 Cabinet ministers to vote in his favor on the redeployment plan. The Cabinet vote isn't binding on Netanyahu but is a test of political support.

Ministers of the National Religious Party, a major partner in Netanyahu's coalition government, say they will vote against the deal because it doesn't satisfy the security needs of Jewish settlers in Hebron.

After seeing the agreement, a minister from the Russian immigrant party and at least two from Netanyahu's own Likud Party say they, too, can't support the deal.

Complications only seem to be growing.

The longer the elusive agreement is delayed, the more likely the prospect that violence will derail plans for a smooth Israeli redeployment from the 80 percent of Hebron that will come under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

On Wednesday, a young Israeli soldier from a West Bank settlement near Jerusalem emptied a clip of his M-16 into a crowd of Palestinians in the Hebron market, wounding eight, in a professed attempt to keep the city of the Jewish patriarchs in Israeli hands. In reaction, Muslim militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad warn they will take revenge for the shooting soon.

Much progress so far

Still, the auspicious headlines have had some meat behind them, with American officials saying that significant progress has been made.

Intense involvement by US Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross; US Ambassador Martin Indyk; and Edward Abington, the US Consul General in Jerusalem, has resulted in an American-drafted addendum that carries commitments about the issues that have really been holding up the Hebron redeployment.

For weeks, the negotiations have been snagged on questions of "What else?" and "What next?"

The US draft will give Arafat some assurances that Israel will implement other parts of the accords, including a deadline by which it must carry out the first of the three additional troop redeployments in rural areas of the West Bank. The Army withdrawal will reportedly take place about a month after the Hebron redeployment.

The US-drafted rider document may also include the opening of an airport in the Gaza Strip, a "safe passage" for Palestinian travelers between the self-rule areas West Bank and Gaza, and an easing of the strict limits Israel maintains on the number of Palestinians working in Israel.

In return, Israel is expecting promises that the Palestinians will abide by their their previous commitments. Netanyahu's government wants Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization to change its covenant - which it says still calls for Israel's destruction - and wants Arafat to confiscate illegal weapons and rein in radical Islamic and leftist militants operating in the PA-controlled areas.

The US is trying to assure Israel it will be rewarded for meeting its obligations with an invitation for Netanyahu to go to the White House later this month, as well as a dtente in relations with neighboring Arab countries.

Since Netanyahu's election in May, regional tensions have soared to the point that many analysts and intelligence officials have thought that war is more likely.

Israel's foreign ministry, dismayed by what it called anti-Israel rhetoric and international "ganging up" on Netanayhu, said last week it wants nations to agree to a "code of a conduct" that would include refraining from incendiary statements and condemnations.

Some of the sharpest criticism in recent months has come from Egypt, with whom Israel has had a cold peace since 1979.

And with much reluctance by US and Israeli leaders, the Hebron negotiations have projected Egypt back into the spotlight as a major co-broker of the accords.

Arafat has been acting in coordination with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, making regular trips to Cairo to seek his approval. Palestinians see the Egyptians as a check to American influence on the negotiations, while Israelis complain that the Egyptians have been encouraging Arafat to be uncompromising with the new Israeli regime.

Either way, Egypt will be at the signing ceremony - which could be today or later - having parlayed the Palestinian-Israeli tensions into a starring role in talks to come. "The Egyptians have got themselves back in the picture," says Joel Peters, a visiting fellow at Hebrew University's Truman Institute. "Cairo has become, for the Palestinians, an invaluable property."

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