Battle to complete Hebron deal

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The Independent Online
Having failed to meet a Christmas deadline, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were working against the clock last night to seal an Israeli redeployment in Hebron before the new year.

There was more scepticism among observers outside the bargaining chamber than in. Spokesmen on both sides believed agreement was imminent after talks on Sunday between the Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat, and Israeli's Defence Minister, Yitzhak Mordechai. Late last night Mr Arafat said he hoped to meet the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, today to sign a deal .

Mr Mordechai said they had resolved most of the issues still in dispute. The Iraqi-born former general seems to have established a more affable dialogue with Mr Arafat than the more doctrinaire Mr Netanyahu has managed. Before joining the negotiators in a Jerusalem hotel yesterday, Mr Mordechai said: "I expect an agreement to be concluded and signed within a very short time." However, it is Mr Netanyahu who will decide.

The killing of a Palestinian by a Jewish settler in the Kfar Daarom settlement, in the still-occupied Gaza strip yesterday, was seen as a reminder of tensions which also exist in Hebron.

The Prime Minister assured MPs yesterday that the eventual Hebron accord would be "better on 10 counts" for the security of the 450 Jewish settlers than that signed by his Labour predecessor, Shimon Peres.

The American mediator Dennis Ross, who flew back to Israel last night from a break in the United States, was expected to give the talks an extra push. The Palestinians want to invite US and Egyptian representatives to witness an agreement.

Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinians' West Bank security chief, hoped Mr Arafat and Mr Netanyahu could meet today and sign a deal. Another Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat, predicted Israeli troops would evacuate most of Arab Hebron, the last West Bank town under occupation, within a week of the signing.

The main stumbling block was a last-minute demand by the Palestinian leader to station joint security teams at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.