QUEENSTOWN -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat reached tentative agreement last night on scrapping calls in the Palestinian charter for Israel's destruction, a key breakthrough in ending an 19-month impasse in the Middle East peace process.
Israel also agreed to release a few hundred Palestinian prisoners, far fewer than the 3,000 sought by Arafat, the Palestinians agreed to arrest 30 of 36 Palestinians the Israelis wanted extradited to face charges for violent crimes, including murder.
Officials from both sides said a comprehensive deal on all issues was in sight, but the American delegation led by President Clinton was more cautious.
State Department spokesman James P. Rubin, announcing the biggest achievement of the summit late last night, said "substantial progress" had been made in eliminating clauses of the Palestinian charter that call for the destruction of Israel.
A senior Israeli official said the emerging deal called for a gathering of members of "all public organizations which represent the Palestinian people" to delete all sections of the 1964 charter that promote the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish state.
Even with that apparent breakthrough, however, the outcome of the summit was in doubt.
"What will happen is very much an open question," Rubin said. "Crucial gaps in some of these areas have not been closed."
As the night progressed, King Hussein of Jordan rejoined the talks briefly, urging a strong push in the interest of peace.
"All of the people were moved by the presentation," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.
After his short speech, Hussein and his wife, Queen Noor, met with Clinton, then left the talks. Meanwhile, the Palestinians and Israelis broke into small working groups at the main dining hall of the Wye Plantation convention center.
No movement was reported last night on the other key issue -- Palestinian insistence that Israel commit to a subsequent troop withdrawal from the West Bank -- but both sides were searching for an acceptable formula.
By yesterday, the sides had reached accord on a core agreement of about 20 pages that called for a 13 percent Israeli withdrawal and verifiable Palestinian steps to combat terrorism.
The comprehensive deal was expected to emerge in the form of an agreed text, with side agreements and an agreement to put off some issues. But officials have long contended that a comprehensive deal would not become final until all of the issues are agreed, meaning one deadlocked issue could unravel the whole effort.
Other issues that were not considered crucial to a deal but that could pose last-minute problems include:
Extradition of prisoners: Israel has been demanding that Palestinian security forces turn over suspects accused of violent crimes against Israelis. The Palestinians are expected to refuse, but the issue could be resolved through close monitoring of the Palestinian justice system by a joint committee that includes representatives of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Settlements: The United States, backing the Palestinians, has sought a "timeout" on building or expansion of Jewish settlements in Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank until the issue is thrashed out in so-called "final-status" negotiations.
Palestinian statehood: Arafat says that he will unilaterally declare Palestinian statehood May 4, when the five-year peace process laid out under the Oslo accords expires. U.S. officials have discouraged the idea as dangerously provocative. But they are taking Arafat's threat seriously. One reason for pushing the talks at Wye Plantation to a conclusion is that they foresee disaster next May if no progress has been made in the peace process.
"We are close to an agreement but we are not there yet," said Hassan Abdul Rahman, who heads the Palestinians' Washington office. He said formulas were "being finalized" to resolve the remaining stumbling blocks.
Lockhart characterized the effort yesterday as "the most intense" of summit, which began Oct. 15.
The endgame negotiations follow an extraordinary eight days of U.S.-mediated talks at rustic Wye Plantation that were intended to end a bitter 18-month impasse in the Middle East peace process. President Clinton has spent seven of the eight days working personally to try to bring the sides to a deal.
About 7: 30 p.m. yesterday, Clinton gathered leaders and top officials from each side to assess the remaining obstacles and figure out ways to overcome them.
Under the Oslo accords of 1993, Israel was to undertake three withdrawals from occupied territory. Although no territorial amounts were specified, Palestinians want to have the bulk of the West Bank under their control by the time the final phase of the peace process -- the final-status talks -- gets under way.
Palestinians wanted assurances that the issue was being taken seriously by the Israelis, who had offered a token third withdrawal. One solution reportedly under discussion was to have a side document that spelled out a timetable -- either for withdrawal or for talks leading to a withdrawal.
On the Palestinian charter, Israel wants the Palestinians to repeal parts of the decades-old covenant that call for the destruction of Israel.
Israelis had wanted the full Palestine National Council, a huge body of more than 500 Palestinians from the territories and the diaspora, to convene to repeal the charter. The deal under discussion last night called for the smaller Palestine Central Council to meet and nullify the offending portions of the charter.
Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright spent much of the time moving among small clusters of American, Israeli and Palestinian officials, with Albright at times conducting "shuttle diplomacy" across the room.
Pub Date: 10/23/98