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Rabin to Propose Transfer of Authority to Palestinians

By David Hoffman
The Washington Post

JERUSALEM

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin will propose Monday that the Israeli Cabinet approve transferring authority to Palestinians for governing the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho as a first step toward self-rule, Israeli officials said Sunday.

The plan has emerged from secret diplomacy between Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and a senior official of the Palestine Liberation Organization. While a series of hurdles remains, if approved by Israel and the Palestinians, the Gaza-Jericho option could become the most significant Middle East peace agreement since the 1979 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt.

Over the last several days, enthusiasm for the new proposal has been steadily mounting among both Palestinian and Israeli leaders, and with a new round of Israeli-Arab peace talks due to begin Tuesday in Washington, spokesmen on both sides Sunday sounded euphoric. "We believe that during the next few days we will be witnessing a positive and historic change, which both peoples have not expected in a long while," said PLO official Yasser Abed Rabbo.

"It's a major breakthrough and it's a very historic moment in the relationship between the Palestinians and the Jewish nation after 100 years of conflict, of bloodshed, hatred and violence," Israeli Health Minister Haim Ramon said.

However, other sources cautioned that a complex series of maneuvers must occur before an actual agreement is reached on a set of common principles between Israel and the Palestinians. Months of extremely difficult negotiations would then follow before Palestinian rule could become a reality in the Gaza Strip and Jericho.

Such vital questions as how Israel's army and military government will disengage from the areas and how the Palestinians will govern themselves will have to be hammered out. There is also the issue of the future status of the 3,000 Jewish settlers living in the Gaza Strip. The council of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Sunday called the move "treason."

A major impediment to the success of the Gaza-Jericho idea may be opposition from Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, which has violently rejected the peace talks with Israel. From a base in the Gaza Strip, Hamas has become the second most powerful Palestinian movement in the territories, and it may strike at the PLO and Israel if it appears that Arafat is about to be handed an exclusive power base.

Eventually, the self-rule in Gaza and Jericho would be expanded to other West Bank areas, but Israel would retain control over external borders and Jewish settlements, Israeli officials said. The autonomy idea is to be temporary, lasting five years while subsequent negotiations focus on a permanent settlement, as envisioned in the Camp David Accords. Many of the same issues were on the table in the two years of talks that followed the Madrid conference, which opened the current peace process in October 1991, but the negotiations went nowhere.

Nonetheless, the latest secret talks appeared to trigger a new wave of momentum here. Some Israeli officials predicted that the statement of common principles could be completed and signed in Washington by the end of this week, and Israeli television predicted Sunday night that after the signing, the PLO would announce the end of armed struggle against Israel.

In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians were searching for a suitable house for PLO President Yasser Arafat, such as the building known as Governor's Palace, overlooking the Mediterranean, that was used by Egypt's governor in Gaza before 1967 and is now used by the Israeli Border Police as a sports facility.

Meanwhile, Israeli radio said Israel and the PLO might agree on mutual recognition after 30 years of hostility. If the deal eventually is implemented, Israeli officials said they believed Arafat might formally call an end to the intifada, the uprising that began in December 1987 against Israeli rule in the occupied territories.

But Israel's opposition parties are gearing up for a battle. Binyamin Begin, a Likud member of parliament, said the Rabin government has put Gaza and Jericho "on the giveaway table as a free gift" and "the idea is to transfer those parts of our homeland to direct control of the PLO."

On the Palestinian side, hard-liners also were critical. Farouk Kaddoumi, head of the PLO's political department, said in Amman that the PLO is "seriously studying suspending the talks because Israel does not intend to withdraw from one inch of the occupied territories." But others said Arafat appeared to be strongly committed to pressing forward with the Gaza-Jericho idea, which the PLO Executive Commitee approved over the weekend.