JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM - Israel has relented on one of its core demands of the Palestinian leadership, backing away from its insistence that the men it regards as wanted terrorists be held in Palestinian prisons, Israeli and Palestinian officials said yesterday.
Instead, Israel has accepted in principle the assurances of Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian minister of security, that he will monitor the wanted men in the cities where they live and prevent them from launching attacks, the officials said.
That would represent a less aggressive strategy than the immediate "dismantlement" of terrorist infrastructure that Israel has sought. Bush administration officials had indicated that they would accept the milder Palestinian approach, which amounts to containment and, perhaps, assimilation into mainstream society.
Palestinian officials said the agreement cleared the way for an effective amnesty for wanted men who abandon violence. The details of the agreement were to be completed in a meeting today between Dahlan and Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli defense minister. Officials warned that it could still fall apart. A final agreement would appear to be the most significant change in the basic negotiating posture of either side since President Bush began the peace process more than two months ago.
A senior Israeli official said that in making the concession over militants whom it considers guilty of conducting or planning mass murders, Israel was seeking to sustain a peace process that appeared in danger of collapsing, especially with two suicide bombings last week. "No one really wants the alternative, which would be a breakdown in the cease-fire and a return to the suicide bombings - neither on our side or the Palestinian side," he said. "It's a choice by default, I think."
The Israeli official said the agreement would take from Dahlan any pretext to blame Israel for new violence. "We don't want to give them any chance for an excuse to say, 'It was because you were preventing us,'" the official said.
He said he did not anticipate that the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, would come under anything more than pro forma criticism from his political right for the concession. He said that the decision was reversible, if violence resumed. "If they fail, we can tell them, 'It didn't work; let's do it our way,'" he said.
The Israeli concession was crucial to a deal reached late last week for Israel to return policing responsibility to the Palestinians for two more West Bank cities, Jericho and Qalqilya. Dahlan had previously rejected that offer, first made late last month, as insufficient. The details of that transfer were also to be discussed in the meeting today.
Palestinian officials confirmed the deal on wanted men, while saying they had promised not to disclose it first. They said the agreement meant that wanted men would no longer be sought by Israel for arrest or so-called directed killings, and that they could remain with their families and be offered jobs with the Palestinian Authority to encourage them to abide by the cease-fire.
"In practical terms, they have been pardoned by the Israelis," one official said. Dahlan is expected to provide the Israelis with a detailed report on how he will monitor the suspects.
The agreement appeared to apply only to areas under Palestinian security control, which for now include the Gaza Strip and Bethlehem, in the West Bank.
The agreement on wanted men eased the way for Dahlan to accept control of Jericho and Qalqilya. Palestinian officials had previously derided that offer, saying that Israel had no military presence in Jericho and that Qalqilya was surrounded by an Israeli barricade.
To sweeten the proposal, Israel has agreed to withdraw by the end of the month from Ramallah and Tulkarm, also in the West Bank, provided the cease-fire holds and Dahlan's approach to containing the wanted men works.
A top aide to Yasser Arafat, Nabil Aburdeneh, criticized the proposed transfer of cities, saying that Israel should withdraw from a big Palestinian city such as Hebron or Nablus. Arafat had warned Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas that the Palestinian leadership should not insist on a withdrawal from Ramallah, where it is based, so that Palestinians would not think their leaders were putting their own needs first.