A Fragile Mideast Peace Pact

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delayed indefinitely on Tuesday a cabinet decision on a new peace deal until Palestinians submitted a plan to fight terrorism, his media adviser said.

It was the first obstacle to the implementation of the interim land-for-security deal signed last Friday at the White House to break a 19-month peacemaking deadlock. Netanyahu was originally scheduled to convene his cabinet on Thursday to vote on the deal.

Netanyahu's spokesman, Aviv Bushinsky, said the cabinet meeting was scuttled because Palestinians were failing to deliver on a promised security plan that he said should have been ready within a week.

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat expressed confidence on Wednesday that the deal would be implemented despite the delay in its submission to the Israeli cabinet.

"I think that what has been signed will be implemented accurately," he said upon his return to the Gaza Strip from a tour of Arab countries.

Some speculated that Netanyahu's decision to postpone the cabinet vote came as a result of difficulties in mustering political support for the accord.

Senior Palestinian negotiator Hassan Asfour on Tuesday said the decision was "an indication of Netanyahu's political cowardice."

"It seems that once again Netanyahu is going to succumb to the political blackmail by the herds of settlers and extremists. It shows that Netanyahu has unwillingly signed the agreement...under the threat of the U.S. president," he said.

On Monday, however, Netanyahu expressed confidence that he would overcome right-wing Israeli opposition to his peace deal with the Palestinians.

"I believe we will get a majority in the cabinet and in parliament to vote in favor [of the deal]," Netanyahu told Israel Radio.

Netanyahu's attempts to build support faced another hardship Monday, when a Jewish security guard was found shot to death in the Israeli-controlled sector of the West Bank city of Hebron, an apparent victim of Muslim militants.

Hours later, the badly beaten body of a Palestinian man was found near the Jewish settlement of Itamar outside the West Bank town of Nablus. Israeli police said they had received an anonymous telephone alerting them to the corpse.

Despite two deaths, Netanyahu easily overcame a no-confidence motion Monday, which was submitted by the ultra-nationalist Moledet party in the 120-member parliament. The Israeli prime minister is hanging onto power by a slim 61-59 majority.

The main opposition Labor party stood by Netanyahu while he defended himself against the first attempt by hardliners to oust him over the interim agreement signed at the White House on Friday.

But an opposition bill to dissolve the Knesset, which passed a preliminary vote before the summer recess in July, is still pending. It could provide an opportunity for Labor and Netanyahu's new foes on the right to move elections forward from heir scheduled date in 2000.

Parliament's law committee, which needs to endorse the bill prior to its final readings in the plenum, convened on Monday to debate the proposal which legislators said could come up for a final vote by mid-November and force elections by March.

Since returning home, Netanyahu has portrayed himself as a tough peacemaker who was adamant over security measures which he said the Palestinians must take in return for the phased handover of another 13 percent of the West Bank.

Under the deal signed in Washington, the two sides tentatively agreed to:

  • Have the Israelis release 750 jailed Palestinians.
  • A security plan with a timetable for Palestinians to arrest alleged terrorists and confiscate weapons, under CIA supervision. Israeli dropped its insistence that suspects be extradited to Israel.
  • An Israeli troop pullback from a further 13 percent of West Bank land.
  • Establishment of a joint Israeli-Palestinian committee to discuss an already agreed-to third troop withdrawal.
  • Opening a Palestinian airport in Gaza.
  • Providing safe passage for Palestinians moving between Palestinian-controlled enclaves.
President Clinton announced Friday he will travel to the Middle East in December to urge Palestinians to support the peace accord.