Israelis, Palestinians spar over timing of withdrawals

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

JERUSALEM — The question of when exactly Israel will begin withdrawing from more West Bank territory has provoked a new round of disagreement between Israeli and Palestinian officials.

The dispute stemmed from a comment Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made Sunday, when he said Israel would begin implementing the Wye accord in September.

At first glance, it appeared that Barak meant that the second of three withdrawals spelled out in the accord would begin next month. The comment had sparked hopes that the two sides were inching closer toward resolving earlier differences.

Indeed, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, bolstering those hopes, subsequently accepted the timetable.

Barak had promised to carry out the Wye agreement in August, Arafat told reporters Sunday. If it began in September, he added, "we accept this."

But it soon became clear that the two sides were not talking about the same thing.

Barak's offer did not spell out when Israel would complete the withdrawals from the West Bank that are called for in the Wye agreement.

And when he and his aides began issuing clarifications, the Palestinian side was less than pleased.

It turned out that Barak expects the Palestinian Authority to begin meeting its security obligations in September, including confiscating illegal weapons and reducing the size of the Palestinian police force. After that, Israel would begin withdrawing from West Bank land in October.

Barak's interpretation of the accord's timetable elicited protests Monday from Palestinian officials, who said both sides should live up to their agreements simultaneously.

"We're willing to start today if the Israelis will start today," said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who maintained that his side had already lived up to most of the security provisions spelled out in the accord.

He added that when Arafat welcomed Barak's proposed timetable a day earlier, it was based on the assumption that the Israeli withdrawal, not a countdown to a withdrawal, would begin then.

Barak spokesman Ya'acov Goldberg later said the premier is "very puzzled" by the Palestinian reaction, adding that Barak had made it clear during recent talks with Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that the countdown to the Israeli withdrawal would take 30 days.

"The prime minister has said this from the beginning," Goldberg added.

In Washington meanwhile, the State Department said Monday that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was due to visit the region this week, would put off her trip until the end of August or early September — by which time the two sides may have resolved their disputes.

State Department officials also said they back the proposal set forward by Barak, with the Wye timetable resuming in September and the Israeli withdrawal taking place some 30 days later.

Last week, Israeli and Palestinian leaders were locked in a war of words over a Barak proposal to delay a troop withdrawal Israel promised under the Wye accord and link it to a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

Barak at the time criticized the Palestinians' "rigid" rejection of his proposal, which Arafat described as "an attempt to avoid the accurate and honest implementation of what has been agreed upon."

Talks between the two sides broke down last week over the proposal.

Barak has repeatedly stressed that Israel would not change the U.S.-brokered land-for-security deal without Arafat's approval. He indicated last week that he would be willing to carry out the second of three Israeli withdrawals from portions of the West Bank by October.

The third withdrawal would be carried out by February, by which time the two sides would have launched the final-status talks.

The first Israeli withdrawal agreed to under October's Wye accord was carried out in November. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu then suspended the agreement, charging that the Palestinian Authority was not living up to its part of the deal.

It is the third withdrawal that is the major problem for Barak, who has said it could leave Jewish settlements isolated within areas under Palestinian control.

Arafat, fearing that he has few chips to bargain with in the final-status talks, prefers to have the Wye withdrawals take place first.