Israel's handover scorned

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The Independent Online
Israel's cabinet yesterday approved in principle the handover of more West Bank land to the Palestinians, but did not decide on the scope or timing of the pullback.

Under the Oslo accords, Israel is committed to a three-stage withdrawal, which is intended to end the Israeli occupation of most of the West Bank, which it captured in 1967.

But Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, has made it clear that he does not intend to relinquish much more than one-third of the West Bank, and in the next phase he is unlikely to hand over to the Palestinian Authority more than 6 to 8 per cent of the West Bank, rather than the 20 to 25 per cent it expects.

Mr Netanyahu is also demanding a "systematic" clampdown on Hamas, the Islamic militants, by Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and the acceleration of final status talks on relations between Israel and the Palestinians. Then the redeployment can begin. The Palestinians, and increasingly the Americans, see these demands as excuses not to implement the Oslo accords.

Washington is putting pressure on Israel to negotiate seriously in the light of the continuing crisis over Iraq. The Americans believe Mr Netanyahu's intransigence is undermining their position in the Arab world. In a letter to two Jewish leaders in the US, Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, wrote that "the reality which we deal with is that when the peace process between Israel and the Arabs is deadlocked, our influence in the region is harmed."

"The Israeli government is actually conducting negotiations with itself," said Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian cabinet member yesterday. "The Israelis say they want to conduct negotiations with the Palestinians - but basically there is already a signed agreement pertaining to redeployment, and a timetable for that redeployment. So I don't believe this is the time to start devising agreements."

It is not clear if Mr Netanyahu has any intention of implementing the Oslo accords. Hami Shalev, an Israeli commentator, says no one - Palestinians, Americans or members of his own cabinet, "knows whether to believe what Netanyahu is saying, and nobody knows where he is really heading".

The Israeli leader made it politically impossible for Mr Arafat to clamp down on Hamas when he released Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas leader, from jail in return for the freeing of two Israeli agents captured in Jordan on a mission to assassinate a Hamas official. Mr Netanyahu is also under pressure from the extreme right not to pull back further from the West Bank.