Israeli recognition of PLO expected Breakthrough in peace talks could be near, with Palestinian self-rule within 6 months


JERUSALEM -- Israeli and Palestinian officials said yesterday that an imminent agreement -- the first in the two sides' long, tortured history -- would lead to mutual recognition by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization and a form of Palestinian self-rule in Israeli-occupied territories within six months.

They said a declaration of principles could be signed this week in Washington, where the Middle East peace talks are to resume tomorrow, and would outline a planned shift of authority starting in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho.

The declaration would be based on a draft secretly reached in Norway about a week ago by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and a senior PLO figure, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. At all times, officials said, Mr. Peres worked in full coordination with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose endorsement of the proposed accord was questioned by some in Israel.

But officials on both sides cautioned that there could be delays and that important details had to be worked out in Washington.

Also, opposition has begun to crystallize on both sides: The Israeli right warned that a first step had been taken toward creating a Palestinian state, and some Palestinians said the draft declaration did not order the full withdrawal of Israeli forces.

Nonetheless, knowledgeable officials are already describing the accord as virtually an accomplished fact. They say it will almost certainly be ratified formally by the government at a special Cabinet session that Mr. Rabin has called for tonight.

"The declaration of principles is already agreed, and it is unchangeable," one Israeli official said.

"We believe that the coming days will witness a positive and an historic development which has been awaited, expected by both people for a long time," Yasir Abed-Rabbo, a senior PLO official, said on Army Radio in Israel.

As described by officials, provisions of the draft accord include these details:

* Palestinian self-rule would begin in Gaza and Jericho to test the planned Israeli disengagement. The aim is to complete detailed negotiations on autonomy within two months and then carry it out within four months.

* Soon after that -- reportedly no time frame is specified -- Israel would turn over responsibility for daily functions elsewhere in the West Bank, even before autonomy arrangements are formally settled. This "early empowerment" would include a strong local police force and services like health, education, welfare, taxation and tourism.

* Ultimate responsibility for security would remain with Israel, including control of borders, the Mediterranean coast off Gaza and the West Bank bridges to Jordan. In practical terms, officials say, this means that Israeli troops would be pulled out of populated areas but would not be fully withdrawn. "We shall remain on the peripheries and in the settlements," one official said. Also, he said, there would be no corridor from Gaza to Jericho through Israel, as some Palestinians want.

* The 140 Jewish settlements in the territories would stay, their 130,000 residents covered by Israeli law and protected by Israeli forces.

Status of Jerusalem deferred

* A decision on the status of Jerusalem, the most sensitive issue, would be deferred. What is taking place now, Israeli officials insist, is the start of a five-year autonomy period, as envisioned in the 1978 Camp David accords, and discussion of Jerusalem's future will be put off to the third year. But there could be a shortcut, with the five-year countdown beginning the moment a detailed agreement is signed.

* Efforts will be made to obtain new American, European and Japanese aid for the territories. Scandinavian countries that Mr. Peres visited last week are said to have agreed to commit 5 percent of their foreign-aid budgets to Gaza and the West Bank.

Another important step is that the PLO is to renounce terrorism, according to some officials. But they add that the PLO, now outlawed in Israel, is ready to go further, by formally recognizing Israel's right to exist and revoking sections of its 1964 covenant that call for Israel's destruction.

When that happens -- and one official said it could be a matter of a few weeks -- Israel and the PLO would recognize each other. The Palestinian group's leadership would then be allowed to move into Gaza and Jericho, several officials said.

"It would no longer be the same PLO," one official argued. "It would become in effect a political body and not a terrorist organization."

But the PLO has been such a hated group and its chairman, Yasser Arafat, such a reviled figure in Israel that formal recognition would undoubtedly be a profound shock for many Israelis, even if they support the broad outlines of an accord. And the thought of Mr. Arafat in Jericho, not 20 miles from downtown Jerusalem, could intensify the jolt.

Opposition leaders accused the Rabin government of throwing the PLO a lifeline at a time when the organization suffers from internal dissent and financial disarray.

"What it is doing is to give the PLO the bridgeheads in Gaza and Jericho to form a Palestinian state, from which the PLO openly says that it will continue to prosecute the war against Israel," Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud Party, said last night in an interview. "So the government is effectively facilitating the implementation of the PLO's phased plan for the destruction of Israel. It's quite incredible."

Likud, which demands early elections that would amount to a referendum on the government's peace plans, has forced a special session of Parliament for today that is likely to produce a stormy debate.

Palestinian fears

On the other side, Palestinian dissenters worry that they are no closer to their hoped-for state and that Israel, after agreeing to limited self-rule in Gaza and Jericho, will stop there.

If an agreement is reached, it would be Israel's first with an Arab enemy since the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, which led to a return of the Sinai Desert. The Sinai had been captured by the Israelis in 1967, along with the lands still under dispute: Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, which formerly was Syria's.

The breakthrough in the Middle East peace talks gained momentum from the shuttle diplomacy of Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, with help from an international cast that included the foreign minister of Norway and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, American officials said yesterday.

The officials gave the Palestinians and Israelis full credit for their role in reaching preliminary agreements that could turn into historic accords. But they said secret talks in Oslo between senior Palestinians and Israelis, begun earlier this summer, had been moving slowly until Mr. Christopher's trip to the Middle East this month.

"They needed the United States to stimulate things," one official said. "They have all needed an awful lot of assurance and hand-holding from the United States."

Mr. Christopher's main contribution, the officials said, may have been to revive the long-stalled talks between Israel and Syria over the future of the Golan Heights. This appears to have encouraged the Palestinians to bring new energy to the Norway talks.

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