Peres, Arafat focus on Hebron in trying to break deadlock in autonomy talks

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- Pressing to conclude an agreement on Arab self-rule in Israeli-occupied territories in time for a signing ceremony in Washington this week, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat last night for a major effort to resolve the deadlock.

On his way to the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba, where he has met Mr. Arafat twice in the last two months, Mr. Peres said he was carrying a new proposal on the West Bank city of Hebron, though he offered no details.


The meeting in Taba is to continue as long it takes to reach agreement, officials said. Both sides appeared more upbeat than at any other time since the talks entered their final phase four months ago.

An Israeli official said 95 percent of the plan to transfer authority over much of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority, led by Mr. Arafat, was ready. He said several issues were resolved in round-the-clock talks over the last week in Eilat, at the southern tip of Israel.


But the issues that remained -- Hebron, and to a lesser degree what Palestinian prisoners are to be released by Israel -- were left to Mr. Peres and Mr. Arafat.

Should they reach agreement in time, a signing ceremony could be held in Washington as early as Thursday. If they do not, an agreement could be delayed for a month by a series of Jewish holidays, starting with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, on Sept. 24.

At the heart of the problem are a cluster of enclaves in the center of Hebron of about 450 Israeli settlers who believe they have a right and a duty to maintain an Israeli presence near the Tomb of Abraham, a site sacred to both Jews and Muslims.

The problem has been to ensure the security of the Israeli settlements in the heart of a city of more than 100,000 Arabs, including a sizable element of Islamic militants.

The Palestinians insist that Hebron must come under Palestinian control, like other West Bank cities, before any Palestinian elections are held. They have agreed to a limited and temporary force of Israeli troops to guard Israeli settlers. The Israelis have insisted that Israeli soldiers must retain the freedom to move throughout Hebron.

The dispute has become a matter of principle for both sides. FTC Officials close to Mr. Arafat say he cannot allow Israel to remain in control of an important West Bank city and expect to win it in the election.

For the Israeli government, which faces an election next year, the fate of settlers and sacred sites is an explosive issue. Settlers from throughout the West Bank have held repeated, increasingly violent demonstrations as the agreement has grown close, accusing the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of betraying them and Israel by ceding control over the West Bank.