JERUSALEM -- Israel's foreign minister and the leader of the Palestinians sat down yesterday for what they said was the final drive for an agreement whose every paragraph and period has been the result of grueling struggle.
Resuming talks after a 24-hour break for the Jewish Sabbath, Shimon Peres, the Israeli foreign minister, and Yasser Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization leader, expressed confidence that they could finish before the two-day Jewish New Year holiday, which begins at sundown today.
If they finish in time, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin could present the agreement to the Israeli Cabinet today, and then both parties would hold a signing ceremony in Washington on Thursday.
Passing reporters on their way to their meeting room at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba, where they have been sequestered for a week, Mr. Peres and Mr. Arafat both said that only a few issues remained to be resolved.
These were said to include the number of Palestinian prisoners to be freed by Israel and the timetable of their release, delineation of the area around Jericho over which the Palestinians will gain control, details of the legal authority that the Palestinian police will have in rural areas of the West Bank, spelling out security responsibilities in Hebron, and a new Palestinian demand that a Palestinian official be stationed at the Allenby Bridge crossing between Jordan and the West Bank.
The late-night talks on the eve of the Jewish New Year, after a week of alternating hopes and disappointments, seemed appropriate for negotiations that are already more than a year behind schedule.
The decision to return large parts of the occupied territories to Arab rule has sharply divided Israelis, and the 120,000 West Bank settlers and their backers inside Israel have been waging an ever sharper campaign against surrendering any of the lands that they deem to be the biblical legacy of the Jews.
The agreement to be completed in Taba is the second stage of a process that Israel and the PLO agreed to in the historic handshake of Mr. Rabin and Mr. Arafat on the White House lawn in September 1993. In a "Declaration of Principles," the bitter enemies agreed to formally recognize each other and to negotiate a transfer of authority over the occupied territories.
The first step was Arab self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho, which began in May 1994. That was to begin a five-year interim period, during which Israeli troops would withdraw from parts of the West Bank, the Palestinians would elect an autonomous governing council, and the two sides would begin talks on a permanent settlement. The current 460-page document covers the Israeli withdrawal -- termed "redeployment" in the agreement -- and preparations for the elections.
According to the timetable set out in the declaration, the talks on a permanent settlement are to begin no later than next May. These will cover issues of political sensitivity, including the fate of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the Palestinian refugees displaced by Israel in 1948, security arrangements and Jerusalem.
Though Mr. Rabin and Mr. Peres have publicly denounced the settlers, their principal objective in the entire disengagement process has been to achieve security for Israelis, and they vowed at the outset not to displace a single settler before the permanent settlement.