Deal in sight on Israeli pull-out

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The Independent Online
PATRICK COCKBURN

Jerusalem

Israel and the PLO are close to an agreement on a two-stage Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the staging of Palestinian elections between the two phases. The US wants the accord signed in Washington, so President Bill Clinton can claim a diplomatic success.

In the first stage, Israeli troops would leave Jenin, Nablus, Kalkilya and Tul Karm in the north of the West Bank, which have a population of about 200,000. They would redeploy three-and-a-half miles from the city centres. Withdrawal from Ramallah and Bethlehem, to the north and south of Jerusalem, would follow next year.

The deadline for the agreement of 1 July is unlikely to be met, as it falls next Saturday, on the Jewish Sabbath, when no Israeli government would dare sign anything. But now the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, has abandoned opposition to a two-stage redeployment, the way looks open for a signing ceremony on the White House lawn.

Egypt wanted to host the ceremony in Cairo, but the US insisted on Washington. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, King Hussein of Jordan and King Hassan of Morocco are expected to attend. The White House wants the ceremony to take place soon to put pressure on Syria, whose chief of staff, Hikmat Shihabi, is in the US capital, holding talks with his Israeli counterpart.

The issue of security in the towns that would not be handed over to Mr Arafat is not resolved. The pull-out from the four cities would be completed by 15 November. Elections would be held up to 35 days after this. Palestinians fear the second phase of the pull-out might be postponed because the government may not want to leave two places so close to Jerusalem.

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