Arafat set to gain from Bibi's stalling

PLO and Israel agree on middle of next year as date for military pull-out

A compromise between Israel and the PLO, fixing on mid-1998 as the date for the completion of Israel's military withdrawal from much of the West Bank, may soon end the political stalemate which began when a right-wing government won the Israeli election last May.

King Hussein of Jordan, supported by the United States and Egypt, won acceptance for the new date for the three-stage withdrawal from Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Prime Minister, late on Sunday night.

Negotiators spent yesterday working out the details in a Jerusalem hotel, and will continue today. "I hope that tomorrow it will be signed," the Israeli Defence Minister, Vitzhak Mordechai said last night. "We must go forward."

In persuading Mr Arafat to accept a delay in the Israeli withdrawal, King Hussein reportedly told him: "If you're too firm, Bibi [Netanyahu] will win and there won't be a Hebron withdrawal."

He added: "Even if you don't trust him, it is better to commit Netanyahu to a particular date for further redeployment. And if Netanyahu doesn't fulfil his commitment, you will be able to raise an international hue and cry."

The US is to offer a guarantee for the date of Israel's departure, the first stage of which will be on 28 February and the second, eight months later. The final and biggest redeployment, from all Palestinian villages, is to take place no later than 31 August 1998, a year later than Mr Arafat agreed with the previous Israeli government. The agreement opens the way for Israel's immediate departure from 80 per cent of Hebron, the city of 120,000 people which is the capital of the southern West Bank. This was effectively partitioned under the 1995 agreement to protect 400 Jewish settlers in the city. For all Mr Netanyahu's claims to have improved the settlers' security, the new agreement differs little from the old.

Negotiations over Hebron became a prolonged trial of strength between Mr Arafat and Mr Netanyahu, which the Palestinian leader appears to have won. Six months ago he was ignored by the Prime Minister but today he is close to forcing him to sign a version of the Oslo accords, which Mr Netanyahu once denounced as a renunciation of Israel's historic right to the West Bank.

"This is of immense significance for the right-wing Israeli public," says Joseph Alpher, director of the Israel/Middle East Office of the American Jewish Committee in Jerusalem.

Mr Alpher warns there may be a time bomb contained in the agreement, as it does not spell out the extent of the territory from which Israel is to withdraw. Mr Arafat expects to get 90 per cent of the West Bank in 1998; he may only be offered 50 per cent. If Mr Netanyahu presses ahead with plans to expand the number of Israeli settlers, a confrontation will be postponed rather than averted.

Will the agreement touch off a revolt on the Israeli right? Seven out of 18 ministers are said to oppose the Hebron agreement. But they will be nervous of pushing Mr Netanyahu towards a national unity government with Labour. The settlers also have no political alternative to Mr Netanyahu. But, as they showed when Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 people in Hebron in 1994, they turn to violence when politically isolated.

The history of the Hebron talks shows Mr Netanyahu overplayed his hand. He believed Labour had created exaggerated expectations among Palestinians and tried to lower them by provocations, culminating in the opening of a tunnel in Jerusalem exiting in the Muslim quarter. Palestinian response was bloody: 15 Israelis and 60 Palestinians were killed. Mr Netanyahu was clearly caught by surprise. He began to court Mr Arafat, whom he had previously spurned.

The September violence convinced the Arab world the new Israeli leader was hardline and unpredictable. They shifted closer to Mr Arafat. Western Europe actively supported the Palestinian leader. After the Washington summit in October, the US began to act as a mediator, limiting Mr Netanyahu's ability to act unilaterally.

In retrospect, he may regret he did not opt for an early pull- out from Hebron.

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