JERUSALEM — With less than two weeks remaining before the deadline for signing of the interim phase agreement on extending self rule in the West Bank, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators this week faced a long list of unresolved issues.
Privately sources on both sides expressed doubt they will settle their differences in time for a Sept. 18 signing of the interim agreement in Washington, D.C.
While key officials cited more than a dozen unresolved issues in the ongoing talks, the head of the Palestinian delegation put the number of problematic areas even higher.
Ahmed Karia, also known as Abu Alaa, said in a weekend radio interview that more than 150 differences existed between the two sides. Some of the conflicts concern wording, he said, while others focus on more substantive issues.
The date of the signing ceremony has been pushed back repeatedly. In August, the two sides were speaking of a Sept. 4 signing ceremony.
Israeli sources said they hope the ceremony will at least take place before Rosh Hashanah, which falls on Sept. 24.
Implementation of the next phase of the Israeli-Palestinian accord, signed in Washington on Sept. 13, 1993, has been held up partly due to Israeli security concerns. Those fears have been heightened in the wake of repeated terror attacks launched by militant Islamic groups opposed to the peace process. After Sunday's weekly Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin held discussions with his "security cabinet," as well as with senior security and foreign ministry officials, to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The security cabinet, which oversees issues related to the still-evolving peace accord, was told of 18 points of difference still remaining between the Israeli and Palestinian sides.
These included questions regarding security provisions in the West Bank town of Hebron, which would control water sources and electricity grids in the West Bank; the release of Palestinian prisoners; and issues related to the holding of Palestinian elections. All of these problems have bedeviled the two sides for months.
Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres made a surprise visit to Hebron Monday to examine security options in the West Bank town. Israel has indicated a willingness to redeploy its troops from certain areas of the town that have no Jewish presence but said it would retain control of routes that cut through the city in order to ensure safe passage for some 400 Jewish residents.
Meanwhile in the Gaza Strip, Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat called on his negotiating team Sunday to speed up the negotiations.
Palestinian sources reportedly said after a Sunday meeting of the leadership of the Palestinian Authority that they had discussed a proposal by U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross to move the negotiations to Washington.
Last week, in an effort to expedite the negotiations in Eilat, Israeli ministers joined the talks.
Israeli Police Minister Moshe Shahal reported after an Aug. 30 meeting that there had been some progress on a number of divisive issues.
Shahal said Abu Alaa had agreed that the Palestinian Authority would operate only in areas under its jurisdiction, currently the Gaza Strip and West Bank Jericho enclave.
In another sign of progress, Shahal also said last week that the two sides had agreed to set up a telephone hotline between the heads of their respective police forces and to cooperate in criminal investigations.
Another source of friction was removed when Israel lifted its closure of Jericho on Aug. 30. Rabin had sealed off the self-rule enclave from the rest of the West Bank a week earlier, after two Hamas members wanted in connection with the Aug. 21 suicide bus bombing had fled there.
Despite these encouraging signs, the talks in Eilat remained bogged down over the issues still in dispute.
During a brief meeting in Italy last week, Peres and Arafat held informal talks in an effort to iron out some of the differences.
Peres and Arafat met for 50 minutes last Friday at Cernobbio in northern Italy, where both were attending a private symposium of businessmen and political leaders.
At a news conference in Cernobbio, Peres revealed that Israeli and Palestinian delegations had held secret negotiations in Italy in June.
He would not disclose the venue, saying that further talks could take place there.
Peres told the news conference that the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations could be completed by the end of the month, although there was "still a lot to be done" in the overall peace process.
"The second phase of negotiations with the Palestinians should be completed this month, and we'll need several months to implement the accord," he said.
The chief problem is the negotiations with Syria and Lebanon, "which are going very slowly," he said.
Peres also said he hoped that Palestinian elections could be held by the year's end.
Palestinian sources said that Peres and Arafat would hold another meeting in Egypt later this week.