Israeli, Palestinian cabinets approve Hebron agreement

JERUSALEM (AP) — A bitterly divided Israeli Cabinet agreed Wednesday to withdraw troops from most of Hebron and rural West Bank areas, approving an accord that some of Benjamin Netanyahu’s own hard-line allies denounced as a betrayal.
“The prime minister committed himself to give away sections of the Jewish homeland. He gets zero from Arafat,” said Science Minister Benny Begin, who resigned in angry protest of the 11-7 vote.
The Hebron accord — wrapped up in a pre-dawn session Wednesday after 3 months of tortuous negotiations — sailed through Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Cabinet and PLO executive committee. Palestinians said the Cabinet approval was by a large majority, but did not immediately release the vote count.
The Israeli Cabinet approval sets the stage for Israeli parliament debate Thursday on the agreement, which outlines the immediate troop withdrawal from Hebron — the last West Bank city under Israeli occupation — and from the West Bank countryside by mid-1998.
The troop withdrawal from Hebron is expected to start as soon as parliament gives its approval, which is all but guaranteed given the support of dovish opposition parties. By Wednesday evening, Israeli troops were already moving chairs and desks out of their Hebron headquarters.
The Israeli Cabinet debated the accord for 12 tumultuous hours, breaking once in sudden confusion over U.S. guarantees to Israel.
The crisis was sparked by an Israel TV report that quoted an unidentified senior American official in Washington as saying Israel could not unilaterally decide how much of the West Bank it would turn over to the Palestinians.
The report reached the Cabinet, and ministers immediately demanded an explanation from Netanyahu, who had cited Israel’s ability to determine the size of the pullback as his biggest achievement in the accord.
Netanyahu aides demanded — and got — a clarification from the Americans. The U.S. State Department issued a new statement specifying that “further redeployment phases are issues for implementation by Israel rather than issues for negotiation with the Palestinians.”
At Netanyahu’s suggestion, the Israeli Cabinet decided that each stage of withdrawal would have to be debated and authorized by the ministers. Netanyahu apparently intended that to reassure wavering Cabinet members.
The new accord says that Israeli troops should pull out of West Bank rural areas in three stages, starting in the first week of March. It says Israel should withdraw to Jewish settlements and military locations, but does not stipulate the exact dimensions.
The agreement was accompanied by separate letters of assurance to Israel and the Palestinians, written by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
Palestinians have not published their letter from Christopher, raising suspicions among some Israeli Cabinet members that Christopher had offered different terms to each side.
Netanyahu tried to sooth the ministers, although saying he himself has only seen a draft of the letter to the Palestinians, according to Israeli TV.
Negotiated amid threats and coaxing from the United States, the Hebron accord injects new life into a peace process many had thought dead after the May election victory of hard-liner Netanyahu and Israeli-Palestinian street battles in the fall.
Netanyahu is now for the first time personally committed to the peace agreements he had once denounced as a foolish gamble with Israeli security, and the Palestinians said they could do business with him.
“There was no trust, but gradully it has started to grow,” said Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s deputy.