Israeli assembly backs Wye peace deal with Palestinians

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The Independent Online
THE ISRAELI parliament voted overwhelmingly last night in favour of the land-for-security agreement reached with the Palestinians. The decision paves the way for an Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, had repeatedly held up ratification of the Israeli-Palestinian deal, brokered by President Bill Clinton at Wye, Maryland, claiming that the Palestinians were in breach of its terms. The final obstacle was overcome yesterday when Mr Netanyahu said he accepted assurances from Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, that he disavowed violence.

Earlier in the week the Israeli leader froze implementation of the Wye Agreement on the ground that Mr Arafat had threatened to resume the intifada uprising.

The Knesset endorsed the agreement by 75-19 with nine abstentions. It was also a vote of confidence in Mr Netanyahu.

The territory from which Israel will remove its troops over the next 12 weeks is only about 208 square miles. Under the first phase of the withdrawal Israel will hand over 7.1 per cent of the West Bank to total Palestinian control and 2 per cent to joint control. MPs got their first look at maps of the planned withdrawal before yesterday's vote.

Coming out of a map room in the Knesset, right-wing members said they were shocked to see how isolated some Jewish settlements would become after the first withdrawal from 2 per cent of the area.

Earlier press reports suggested the areas will be in the north of the West Bank between the Palestinian towns of Jenin and Nablus as well as south of Hebron. The Palestinians already control eight enclaves on the West Bank as well as most of Gaza.

The speed with which Mr Arafat retracted his remark that "our rifles are ready" to assert the Palestinian right to pray in Jerusalem shows his impatience to implement the agreement, signed on 23 October. Israel is also to release 250 Palestinian prisoners during its first phase.

The Palestinians are eager for the opening of a land route between the West Bank and Gaza, where about a million Palestinians live under conditions of near-siege.

Abdel Razik Yehiyeh, the head of the Palestinian delegation discussing the topic, said he expected all issues to be settled next week and the "safe passage" to be opened within a month. Both Israel and the Palestinians are under pressure from the United States to implement the Wye Agreement as signed in Washington.

Strengthened by success in the mid-term elections and over Iraq, President Clinton is in a strong position to force both sides to comply with the terms of the deal. However, Israeli settlers are establishing new settlements on the West Bank, as they were recommended to do by Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Foreign Minister. The Israeli organisation Peace Now says that seven settlements have been established since the Wye accord was agreed.