Netanyahu defiant on deadline for Hebron withdrawal

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The Independent Online
Jerusalem - In an attempt to put down a rebellion by hardliners in his Cabinet, Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday he would not give in to Palestinian demands for an Israeli time-table for a troop withdrawal from West Bank rural areas.

The Palestinians say they will not sign a Hebron deal, despite US pressure, unless Mr Netanyahu agrees to a deadline for withdrawal that the authors of the original peace accords anticipated would leave most of the West Bank in the control of the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.

Three more Cabinet ministers said yesterday that they might not vote for the emerging Hebron agreement which could make Cabinet approval for a Hebron deal uncertain.

An Israeli government official said: "He is obligated by a promise to bring it to the Cabinet, and one assumes he'll have to rethink the whole thing if it fails."

Mr Netanyahu's hardline approach came as agreement on a Hebron troop pull-out appeared increasingly remote, despite the efforts of President Clinton's envoy, Dennis Ross, to arrange a meeting between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Arafat.

Mr Ross shuttled between Jerusalem and Mr Arafat's Gaza City office for a fifth day.

"Efforts are being made on both sides to try to overcome the differences, they are not there yet but there is a genuine effort being made to get there," Mr Ross said after meeting Mr Arafat.

Seven of the 18 ministers in Mr Netanyahu's Cabinet said they would abstain or vote against a Hebron pull-out and another three ministers joined the ranks, including the Justice Minister, Tzahi Hanegbi. Two ministers from the religious Shas party were also considering abstaining or voting against the pull-out, Israel radio reported.

Many of the ministers who have said they would vote against the Hebron deal enjoy support from Jewish settlers. Yesterday, settlers from the Beit El community set up trailers on a West Bank hilltop, defying Mr Netanyahu's decision not to create new settlements. They were joined by 200 others who held morning prayers on the rocky hilltop.

Settlers said they would build a new settlement at the site, to be named after Ita and Efraim Tzur, a mother and son from Beit El who were shot by Palestinian militants last month. After the shooting, Mr Netanyahu had rejected a demand by settlers to build 1,500 new homes in the area, apparently fearing this would harm the delicate negotiations with the Palestinians.

A showdown was averted yesterday afternoon, when the settlers agreed to leave the hill in exchange for a promise that the government would consider their demands. Mr Arafat's aide, Nabil Abourdeineh, said the settlers' actions were damaging the peace process.

Mr Netanyahu told his Cabinet that he would not agree to a Palestinian demand that he commit himself to a detailed timetable for withdrawing Israeli troops from most of the West Bank.

Instead, he would give Mr Arafat a date for beginning withdrawal when the two leaders met.

Under the autonomy accord signed by Mr Netanyahu's predecessors, the three-stage withdrawal was to have begun in September 1996 and be completed a year later. The two sides had an understanding that by September 1997, the Palestinians would control most of the West Bank. However, Mr Netanyahu never started the pull-out and the Palestinians now want it completed on time.