Israel and the Palestinians have overcome the main obstacles standing in the way of an agreement under which Israel will begin to withdraw from the West Bank. Israeli troops will start to move out of six West Bank cities next month and complete their redeployment in December. Elections for an 82-member Palestinian council will take place a month later.
``Most of the issues have been concluded,'' Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, said yesterday at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba. Yesterday afternoon negotiators were ironing out last-minute differences over Jericho and the release of Palestinian prisoners in order to initial the agreement tonight after the end of the Jewish sabbath.
The final accord, hammered out in extraordinarily prolonged negotiations, moves the Palestinians significantly closer to their target of an independent state. It changes the balance of power on the West Bank. Palestinian soldiers and police will replace Israeli troops in the cities of Nablus, Jenin, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Tulkarm and Qalqilyah by the end of the year. The Palestine Liberation Organisation already controls Jericho. Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman, is expected to move his headquarters from Gaza to Ramallah, a 20-minute drive from the centre of Jerusalem.
Israel's decision in the last few days to scale down its demands over Hebron, the centre of a region where 380,000 Palestinians live, resolved the main block to the second phase of the Oslo agreement going ahead. Instead of overall security control over Hebron, Israeli troops will merely protect the 400 militant Jewish settlers in the heart of the city.
Negotiations have been extremely detailed. An Israeli negotiator said it was "a war from house to house''. Air photographs and maps were carefully studied. Israel finally agreed to hand over the military headquarters which dominates the city centre and to allow 350 to 400 armed Palestinian police and unarmed inspectors into the city.
Major-General Ilan Biran, Israeli commander for the West Bank, is critical of Mr Peres and the foreign ministry for compromising security by making too many concessions. Colonel Jibril Rajoub, a Palestinian negotiator and head of security for the West Bank, denounced Gen Biran saying: ``He is against the peace process and is trying to fix his own political future at the expense of two peoples.''
There were other signs of friction over the impending accord yesterday. An Israeli settler shot a Palestinian in the leg in Hebron and Palestinian gunmen fired at an Israeli checkpoint near Jericho. Israel has sealed off Gaza, which achieved self-rule last year, because it fears Islamic militants will try to sabotage the agreement with another suicide bomb.
The ability of Israel to seal off the autonomous areas deeply worries Palestinians. ``We don't want any roadblocks,'' said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, one of Mr Arafat's aides earlier this week. ``If somebody goes from Ramallah to Nablus, no Israeli soldier should say, `Go back home.' ... The seven cities cannot be seven prisons. We want freedom of movement.''
After 50 hours of negotiations with Mr Arafat this week, Mr Peres said: ``I am aware of the difficulties Arafat has, but we too have our pubic opinion.'' Support for the Oslo agreement has fallen in Israel in the past two years. The ability of Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister, to win a majority for the new accord in the Knesset is uncertain.