Israel-PLO peace pact in jeopardy


JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin yesterday threw into doubt all the deadlines of his historic agreement with the Palestinians, and said the 10-day delay in beginning its implementation is unlikely to succeed.

"Whoever thinks that in the next 10 days an agreement will be concluded between Israel and the PLO doesn't know what is being talked about," he said.

Yesterday was supposed to be the start of the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho. Mr. Rabin announced the 10-day postponement in Cairo, Egypt, on Sunday after a fruitless meeting with Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The deadlock seemed the most serious threat yet to the agreement signed at a momentous first meeting of the two leaders in Washington on Sept. 13.

"It is a serious crisis," acknowledged Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, usually steadfastly optimistic.

"Definitely there are serious problems," Mr. Arafat told reporters on a stop at The Hague in the Netherlands.

Mr. Arafat and Mr. Rabin had tried to minimize their differences Sunday. But in a special briefing to Israeli diplomatic reporters yesterday and comments in a radio interview, Mr. Rabin went to lengths to devalue the deadlines of the peace pact. "There are no sacred dates," he said.

The document signed at the White House requires Israel to finish its pullout from the Gaza Strip and Jericho by April 13, and withdraw from populated areas in the rest of the West Bank by July 13.

Under the pact, the vacated territory is to be an autonomous Palestinian area for five years, after which a final settlement negotiated with Israel would take effect.

But Mr. Rabin yesterday contended, for the first time, that each deadline was dependent on further negotiation, and on the success of the previous step.

"I hope very much that we will not have to wait for the reaching of the agreement [to start the withdrawal] until mid-April," the prime minister said in an interview on Army Radio. "I hope we will achieve it before, but I repeat: There are no sacred dates. Rather, each date depends on the attainment of an agreement."

The deadlock is over details of the withdrawal. Israel and the PLO differ greatly on the size of area around Jericho to be cleared of Israeli troops.

They disagree on who will control the borders between Jericho and Jordan, and between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. And they disagree on the Israeli troop presence needed to guard settlements in the Gaza Strip and near Jericho.

At The Hague, Mr. Arafat said any further delay will harm the peace process. "The credibility of the peace process would be damaged. No doubt," he told reporters.

In the Gaza Strip yesterday, Palestinians reacted sullenly to yesterday's missed deadline for the start of the Israeli withdrawal.

Three Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip. One died in an apparent suicide attack when he rammed an army jeep into a van containing explosives. Two other Palestinians died when Israeli troops opened fire on a car containing suspected fugitives, according to the army. Israeli soldiers had only minor injuries, officials said.

For the most part, widespread demonstrations did not develop in the Gaza Strip, however. Palestinians said they had expected a snag in the process, and were increasingly pessimistic about the peace agreement.

"All the people are disappointed and frustrated," said Suhair Jabber, an official at the PLO office in Gaza. At his office, the new chief of the Palestinian police force had expected to see squads of Palestinian militia come from Egypt and Jordan yesterday to form the nucleus of his force.

"Nothing happened," said Col. Ibrahim Muhanna.

At the house of Saleh Abdulla Abu al-Atta, released 10 days ago after five years in an Israeli prison, the family gathered to observe a day of unexpected quiet.

"We were waiting for something special on the 13th" said Mr. Atta, 31. "But we haven't seen anything different. We don't feel anything different. We don't taste anything different."

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