A Compromise Propels the Mideast Peace Process Israel and Palestinians Reach Partial Agreement on Withdrawing Israeli Troops from Occupied West Bank

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NEXT month, Israeli forces will begin a phased withdrawal from the West Bank to pave the way for Palestinian elections.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres announced over the weekend they had reached agreement on settling most of the issues delaying expansion of Palestinian self-rule on the West Bank.

"Both sides have made substantial concessions on key issues, and it appears that they now regard each other as partners both on political and security issues," says Khalil Shikaki, a political scientist who heads the independent Center for Palestine Research and Studies in Nablus, one of six West Bank towns due to be transferred to Palestinian control soon.

"I think you could say that the spirit of the Oslo accord {signed after secret Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in September 1993} has finally been solidified.

"The essential element of trust which was missing before is now there," says Mr. Shikaki, an adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team on the arrangements for the deployment of Palestinian police.

Under the partial agreement, Israel will still control between 64 percent and 73 percent of the West Bank, but will cede control in stages over a two-year period.

Israeli troops will begin withdrawing from six of seven Palestinian towns on the West Bank next month. The one hitch - still unresolved - is security for the West Bank town of Hebron. About 400 Jewish settlers live in the downtown area, surrounded by about 100,000 Arabs. Hebron is also home of Hamas, the Islamic group that objects to the Israeli-Palestinian self-rule accord.

Palestinians will also take over full administrative and limited security control in about 420 of an estimated 460 Palestinian villages on the West Bank. Israel will retain overall security control in the first phase.

Israel has agreed to the establishment of at least 25 Palestinian police stations on the West Bank. But the movement of Palestinian police on intercity roads will be subject to prior coordination with the Israeli authorities.

About 15,000 Palestinian police are expected to fill the vacuum left by withdrawing Israeli soldiers.

"The PLO will be responsible for public order among the Palestinians," says Israeli Foreign Ministry legal adviser Yoel Singer.

"We will be responsible for the overriding security responsibility ... for the purpose of protecting Israelis and confronting the threat of terrorism," he says.

Further Israeli withdrawal from unpopulated areas will be carried out in three stages six months apart, according to the two-page statement initialed at the weekend.

Several thousand Palestinian prisoners will also be released in three phases, beginning with the signing of the detailed agreement. …