Palestinians delay Israeli withdrawal from West Bank

JERUSALEM — A planned Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank has hit a snag.

Israel postponed its redeployment from an additional 5 percent of the West Bank — originally slated to take place Monday — when Palestinian officials complained about some of the lands being turned over to them.

After negotiators for the two sides failed to overcome their differences about the redeployment maps, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat held a surprise meeting Sunday night near Tel Aviv — but they, too, were unable to reach agreement.

As of Wednesday afternoon, no deal had been reached and the pullback was still up in the air.

The dispute came as U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross arrived in the region in an effort to advance the peace process.

Israeli officials said they believe the Palestinian Authority may have delayed an agreement in hopes of securing a better arrangement as a result of Ross' intervention.

But by Tuesday, after Ross held separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials, it was clear that he was not taking sides.

"The best place to sort out problems is by the parties themselves," he said. Ross added that it is Israel's responsibility to carry out the pullback.

Palestinian top negotiator Saeb Erekat said the problem is no longer a question of territory, as much as one of principle.

"Show me one agreement which says the Israelis can decide on the withdrawal maps unilaterally," he said, "and we will accept the dictate."

Under the terms of the land-for-security accord signed September in Egypt, Israel agreed to withdraw from an additional 18.1 percent of West Bank lands in three stages.

In September, Israel transferred 7 percent of the West Bank to joint Israeli-Palestinian control. In the second stage, which was to be carried out Monday, Israel was to transfer 2 percent of the land to sole Palestinian control and an additional 3 percent to joint control.

On Jan. 20, Israel is supposed to hand over an additional 6.1 percent of the region.

The latest dispute centered on the area being transferred to joint control.

Palestinian officials complained that the lands involved — located in the Judean Desert and designated by Israel to become a nature reserve — are too thinly populated.

Instead, they are calling for the transfer of areas closer to land they already control — and with a more substantial Arab population.

At issue is whether the Palestinian Authority has any say in which lands are turned over by Israel.

Israeli officials are maintaining that, under the terms of already signed accords, they alone make that decision.

"We have an agreement, and it would be better not to get smart or play games for it is the decision of the government that counts," Foreign Minister David Levy said Tuesday.

The Israeli government insists the Palestinian Authority is simply mistaken and that, according to agreements, it is Israel alone that is to decide which land is to be transferred.

This position is backed up by a 1997 letter from then-U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which talks about Israel "designating" the areas to be transferred, as opposed to selecting them through negotiations. While the letter could be open to interpretation, the United States, at the time, backed Israel's understanding of it.

Palestinian officials are meanwhile claiming that no clause in the latest agreement bars them from participating in determining which lands will be handed over.

The latest snag comes as Israeli and Palestinian officials continued the final-status negotiations.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority have set a mid-February deadline for reaching a framework agreement for a final peace agreement. They hope to conclude the final agreement by next September.

Negotiators of the two sides this week set an agenda for the final-status discussions, dividing the issues into the categories of Jerusalem, settlements, Palestinian refugees and final borders.

Sunday night's Barak-Arafat meeting was part of discussions they have pledged to hold at regular intervals in order "to advance the negotiations," the Prime Minister's Office said.

During that meeting, Barak protested remarks that Arafat's wife, Suha, made during an event last week in Ramallah that was attended by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

At that event, Suha Arafat said Israel's use of "poison gas" had increased cancer among Palestinian women and children. A Palestinian official later said Suha Arafat meant to say "tear gas."

In a statement issued after the Sunday night meeting, Barak said such comments by leading Palestinian figures "do not contribute to the atmosphere necessary for the success of the negotiations."