JERUSALEM -- Dennis Ross, U.S. mediator for the Middle East, said yesterday that he expected the Israelis and Palestinians to seal an agreement on the West Bank city of Hebron, probably as early as next week.
Ross met yesterday with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and said afterward that he would depart soon for a brief trip home.
"I'll be giving a positive report to President Clinton," he said, "and I'll be returning here no later than Monday, particularly because the work is going very well and because I hope and expect that we will conclude an agreement shortly thereafter."
Ross, who came to Israel on Saturday to set off an intensive and evidently successful mediation effort, said the current talks "really do have a new energy."
"What I think has been most important and most impressive is that both sides are approaching the negotiations as partners because they realize they are going to live together and they will create in this agreement and subsequent agreements a very real and a very different kind of future of partnership and reconciliation."
The buoyant statement, and especially the reference to Arafat and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as "partners," stood in sharp contrast to Ross' departure from the Middle East in late October, when he said that the Israelis and Palestinians distrusted one another deeply and that the gap between them on the Hebron issue was broad.
The partial pullout of Israeli forces from Hebron, a pivotal issue, was agreed on once, but never enacted. In the end, the arrangements are expected to deviate little from those outlined in the agreements signed in September 1995 by the former Labor government and the Palestinians. They are likely to establish safeguards for Jewish enclaves in Hebron and ensure Jewish access to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a holy site shared by Jews and Muslims.
Arafat was expected to receive written assurances, probably in the form of a letter from the United States, that Israel within six weeks would honor its commitments under the peace agreements to withdraw from more areas in the West Bank.
The surest sign on the Israeli side that an agreement was imminent was that almost immediately after meeting with Arafat on Tuesday, Netanyahu plunged into the tough task of marketing the agreement to his right-wing constituents, many of whom say they believe or hope that he will not carry out the partial Israeli withdrawal.
The 450 Jewish settlers in Hebron, who have been the central issue in the negotiations, registered their anger at the impending deal by occupying the roofs of buildings adjacent to the Jewish quarters yesterday. Many were women with small children.
Israeli police cleared the roofs to the shrill screams and insults of the settlers. About 20 settlers were detained, but all but four were later released.
Several founding members of the Likud, Netanyahu's conservative coalition, sent a message to Netanyahu imploring him not to sign a Hebron agreement.
Pub Date: 12/26/96