Thorny issues stick as Israel, Palestinians resume talks

JERUSALEM — Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have returned to the bargaining table once again.

But one of the thorniest issues left unresolved from their 1995 Interim Agreement — Israel's further redeployment from rural West Bank areas — seems unlikely to be resolved soon.

In discussions that were expected to continue all week, Israel's cabinet secretary, Danny Naveh, and the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, met Monday to discuss such issues as the opening of a Palestinian airport and seaport in the Gaza Strip and the creation of a safe-passage route for Palestinians traveling between Gaza and the West Bank.

Indeed, Palestinian officials were reported as saying Tuesday that progress had been achieved on the airport.

But the issue that has garnered the most headlines — the redeployment — appears likely to remain contested, given the position attributed this week to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by the Israeli daily Ha'aretz.

According to the newspaper, Netanyahu is intent on holding onto some 64 percent of the West Bank, regardless of how much land the United States asks Israel to turn over as part of a further redeployment.

"There could be five American plans," the newspaper quoted Netanyahu as saying. "We need the territory in order to have something to bargain with in the final-status talks."

Because the Palestinian Authority already controls some 27 percent of West Bank lands, the premier's reported comments indicated that he would not turn over more than 9 percent of the West Bank as part of a further redeployment.

This 9 percent — which is in line with earlier comments made by the premier — falls significantly lower than Palestinian and American expectations.

An American proposal that was put off until after the Persian Gulf crisis ended calls on Israel to transfer 13.1 percent in three phases during a three-month period, according to Ha'aretz.

The American plan also calls on the Palestinians to fulfill their obligations, particularly cracking down on terror, as the redeployments are carried out.

Israel agreed to stage three further redeployments under the terms of the Interim Agreement, which was signed by the previous Labor government.

The first stage of the redeployment, involving 2 percent of West Bank lands, was not carried out last March after the Palestinians rejected it as too small.

Netanyahu this week reiterated his suggestion that the two sides move past the interim issues and launch into intensive Camp David-style negotiations on a final-status agreement.

As they have in the past, Palestinian officials countered that this was an Israeli ploy to avoid carrying out the redeployments.