Peace process is rekindled; Urged by Albright, Barak and Arafat agree on revisions; Accord signing tonight; Tough issues remain, but final settlement scheduled in a year


JERUSALEM -- After a tense standoff that required the assistance of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Israel and the Palestinians agreed last night to resume the stalled Middle East peace process and pursue a course to reach a final settlement in a year.

During a late-night meeting with Albright in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to say he accepted revisions to the U.S.-brokered Wye River Memorandum.

The revised Wye accords pave the way for the release of 350 Palestinian political prisoners, the return of additional West Bank land to Palestinian control and a formula to begin the critical talks that will decide the thorniest issues dividing the two sides.

An Israeli troop pullback could begin within weeks.

Israel is expected to release an additional 11 percent of the West Bank over five months.

The discussions on a final peace agreement are scheduled to begin after the first troop withdrawals, have a framework established by Feb. 15 and end with a final agreement next September.

Arafat, who telephoned President Clinton in Washington to give him the good news, said, "We have worked hand-in-hand in order to achieve the peaceof the brave."

Barak also welcomed the agreement.

"It opens a new page in the trust relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority," a statement released by his office said.

"The prime minister expressed the hope that with that, the road will be open to reaching a framework arrangement for the permanent settlement in a positive and confidence-building atmosphere."

Clinton said lasting peace in the Mideast "is now a step closer" because of the deal.

"This is truly a new beginning," he said.

The Wye agreement will require the Palestinians to vigorously combat terrorism, confiscate illegal weapons and reduce their bloated police force.

Implementation of the Wye accord came to a sudden halt in December under Barak's predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, who complained that the Palestinians were not living up to their end of the deal.

Barak had sought to make some changes in the Wye agreement and tie it to resumption of final status talks.

In recent days, when talks broke down, he said he would implement the original Wye River Memorandum "to the letter," a decision that would have resulted in fewer Palestinian political prisoners being released, an issue of utmost importance to Arafat.

The announcement last night came as Albright prepares to travel today to Damascus to see Syria's President Hafez el Assad. Her goal is to restart negotiations between Israel and Syria in an effort to bring about a regional peace and end Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon.

Syria is the power broker in Lebanon with the ability, analysts say, to curb the activities of the Hezbollah guerrillas trying to oust Israel from the security zone it occupies in southern Lebanon.

Without the Israeli-Palestinian disagreement resolved, Albright would have been hard-pressed to persuade Assad to resume negotiations with Israel over the disputed Golan Heights, Syrian territory that Israel occupied after the 1967 war.

Syrian-Israeli talks broke off three years ago.

Barak has pledged to pull Israeli troops out of south Lebanon, a decision that requires Syria's intervention to ensure the security of Israel's northern border.

After visiting Damascus today, the secretary of state will fly in the evening to the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el Sheik to witness the signing of the new Israeli-Palestinian accord.

The agreement is the result of four weeks of negotiations that changed and clarified aspects of the Wye accord and initiated a new round in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

After three years of frustrating dealings with the Netanyahu government, the Palestinians said the talks under Barak have been conducted in a cordial, cooperative and respectful manner.

Both sides have remarked about the atmosphere and the change it signals.

Despite the good feelings, the negotiators bargained hard. They managed to come to agreements on the construction of a port in Gaza, the opening of safe passage routes between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from an additional 11 percent of West Bank land.

But when the discussions turned to the release of Palestinian prisoners, the end date for a third redeployment or the framework for final status talks, the bargaining got tougher.

Wednesday, after days of saying a deal was near, the two sides stopped talking. The negotiations broke down over the release of Palestinian prisoners and a time line for final status talks.

The prisoner issue posed problems from the start.

During the Wye talks last fall, an oral agreement was struck over the number of prisoners to be released. Since then the two sides have been at odds about the kinds of prisoners who would be freed.

The Palestinians claimed that the remaining 650 prisoners to be released under the Wye accord should be political prisoners -- those who resisted the occupation. The Israelis refer to them as "security" prisoners.

Barak offered to release 350, excluding anyone who had murdered an Israeli. The Palestinians refused to settle for anything less than 400.

Albright arrived and found the negotiations stalled. She set about to assist in any way she could, describing herself at one point as a "handmaiden."

According to Israeli officials, the Palestinians have agreed to the Israeli figure of 350 inmates.

Solving another sticking point, the negotiators decided that a clause in the agreement barring the two sides from taking unilateral steps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would remain unchanged.

Pub Date: 9/04/99

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad