News Analysis: Signs point to imminent deal between Israelis and Palestinians

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JERUSALEM — A series of intelligence warnings that Hamas terror attacks are imminent is providing the best proof that Israel and the Palestinians are near an agreement.

Further proof is also coming from right-wing members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition, who have renewed their threats to bring down the government if the premier agrees to transfer additional West Bank lands to the Palestinians.

But despite the flurry of diplomatic activity surrounding Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's visit this week to the Middle East — and visits by Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat last week to New York and Washington — plenty of skeptics still doubt that a deal will be concluded.

Some cite Netanyahu's coalition difficulties; others point to the prime minister's reluctance to abandon tracts of the biblical homeland.

And even some of the more optimistic observers warn that even if Netanyahu and Arafat sign an agreement under the watchful eye of President Clinton, there is no guarantee it will be implemented.

Israel and the Palestinians, nudged on by American officials, are inching closer to a long-elusive accord under which Israel will redeploy from a further 13 percent of the West Bank in return for stepped-up security arrangements with the Palestinian Authority.

During a Sept. 28 meeting with Netanyahu and Arafat at the White House, Clinton proposed a summit in Washington to sign the accord and to agree on methods for pursuing the permanent-status negotiations, which are already long overdue. That summit is slated to begin Thursday at the Wye Plantation in Maryland.

Albright, who visited the Mideast this week to lay the groundwork for the meeting, told reporters Wednesday that Arafat and Netanyahu made "significant and substantial progress" on a host of issues, including security arrangements and the further Israeli redeployment.

CIA Director George Tenet was reportedly instrumental in the security talks that are now focused on concluding a memorandum of understanding on Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation. For months, CIA officials have participated in meetings between senior Israeli and Palestinian security officials.

But Albright also cautioned that much work remains to be done after she met with Arafat and Netanyahu for more than three hours Wednesday at the Erez Crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Clinton said Wednesday that he believes the Israelis and Palestinians are "close enough" in their stances to be able to reach an agreement at the Maryland summit. "It is imperative that we move on" to final-status talks, he added.

Speaking with reporters after he met with Arafat on Wednesday, Netanyahu agreed with Albright's assessment of progress in the talks.

But he added a cautionary note.

"Although we have climbed up on a steep hill, the hill is still ahead of us," he said.

Looming ever closer is May 4, the end of the five-year interim period under the Oslo Accords.

Arafat was dissuaded by American officials from explicitly stating before the U.N. General Assembly last week that he would declare a Palestinian state on May 4 — a move Netanyahu insists would destroy the peace process. However, in his U.N. speech he reiterated that the Palestinian people expect to establish an independent state.

And he urged the international community to support this aspiration.

The extreme fragility of the situation is exemplified by security incidents that have been occurring almost daily.

Among them were a grenade attack on soldiers in Hebron on Yom Kippur and a mysterious explosion last week of a car bomb near Ramallah.

Last week, Israel imposed a closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip after security officials warned that Hamas is planning to carry out a major terror attack against the Jewish state.

The army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, and senior Shin Bet and Mossad officials have all warned the Cabinet that militant Palestinians are planning major terrorist attacks to derail the peace process.

Indeed, the terrorists' efforts represent the gravest danger to the process. A terror attack inside Israel with heavy civilian casualties could instantly turn Clinton's best-laid plans to ashes.

Such fears — coupled with a healthy dose of skepticism based on almost two years of diplomatic stagnation — have left the Israeli public dubious about the latest diplomatic activity.

The Netanyahu-Arafat meeting in New York on Sept. 27, their first in nearly a year, left many Israelis unimpressed as they made their preparations for Yom Kippur. Indeed, the Israeli media were almost indifferent in reporting the meeting.

And the two leaders' White House meeting and photo-op with Clinton the next day were widely dismissed here as the president's attempt to demonstrate on camera that he was still functioning despite the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal.

Official spokesmen on both sides who carefully played down expectations contributed to a general sense of wait and see.

But one group that is not willing to wait is the Israeli right.

After his return last week from Washington, Netanyahu faced angry hardliners in his cabinet.

Rabbi Yitzhak Levy, the minister of education and National Religious Party leader, reportedly warned Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting that if he returns from a proposed mini-summit announcing that he's divested Israel of more West Bank land, he would find himself divested of his government.

Levy and his NRP colleague, Transportation Minister Shaul Yahalom, demanded that the premier submit any accord to the cabinet before signing it on Israel's behalf.

Netanyahu refused to give this commitment.

The NRP ministers and other Cabinet hawks are now focusing their efforts on the issues of security and reciprocity that remain outstanding in the negotiations.

They acknowledge, reluctantly, that Netanyahu has already acceded to the American proposal for the 13 percent redeployment.

Last Friday, a group of 10 right-wing Knesset members took out large ads in the major Israeli newspapers, warning the prime minister in an open letter against any territorial concession whatsoever.

"If the government decides to undertake any further withdrawal from the territories of Eretz Yisrael — we will no longer be party to your coalition," they said in the open letter. "We will make every effort to bring down the government."

In the letter, the 10 assert that the Palestinian Authority has not honored "a single one of the commitments it undertook in the Oslo accords."

Netanyahu has said repeatedly that once his security concerns are satisfied he will go ahead and conclude the deal, despite the political risk.

Some political observers discount that risk, pointing to the strong support that Netanyahu can effectively count on from the opposition Labor Party.

But that bipartisan backing would presumably be only a short-term prospect.

Once the 12-week implementation period that is proposed for the new accord ends, Labor would doubtless resume its opposition role.

If the hardliners persist in their attempts to topple Netanyahu — in order to put up their own candidate for prime minister in a new election — the government would be doomed.

As a result, politicians and analysts are once again assessing the prospects of a Likud-Labor unity government after the redeployment deal is finally concluded — if it is.