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Israel Speeds Hand-Over in Bid to Boost Arafat : Mideast: Palestinians will soon get authority in the West Bank. PLO leader's popularity has been declining.


JERUSALEM — Faced with evidence that Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat's political base is rapidly eroding, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin promised Tuesday to speed up the hand-over of authority in the West Bank and accelerate negotiations on Palestinian elections.

Emerging from two hours of talks near Erez, the crossing point between Israel and the Gaza Strip, Arafat and Rabin said they had made progress on some of the many issues bedeviling Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Rabin announced that Israel will transfer authority in the West Bank to the Palestinians for tourism, welfare, health and taxation by the end of the month.

In September, Israel transferred authority for education to the Palestinians. But the Israelis refused to relinquish the administration of the other services until they were assured that donor countries would supply enough money to fund them. Rabin said Tuesday that adequate funding will be available by the end of the month.

Rabin also accepted a Palestinian suggestion for speeding up talks on holding elections in Gaza and the West Bank. The two sides disagree on the nature of the elections, on the extent and timing of an Israeli troop redeployment out of Palestinian population centers before the elections are held, and on security arrangements in the West Bank. Rabin said that negotiating teams from the two sides will meet Nov. 21 to discuss all those issues. Previously, he had insisted that the issues be discussed and finalized one at a time, a policy Palestinian officials said was intolerably slowing negotiations.

In another gesture to Arafat, Rabin announced that he had agreed to authorize the return of 10,000 more workers to their jobs in Israel. Last month, after a bomber killed 22 people--and himself--in an attack on a Tel Aviv bus, Rabin banned both Palestinian goods and more than 60,000 Palestinian workers from entering Israel. Israel began to lift that ban a week ago, allowing 8,000 workers to re-enter, but Palestinians have been pushing for a full lifting of the restrictions.

Rabin also said Tuesday that Gazan merchants will be allowed to sell their goods freely in Israel. It was unclear how that declaration would affect an earlier decision by the Ministry of Agriculture to ban all Gazan fruits and vegetables because of a reported outbreak of cholera in Gaza City.

Rabin said Israel will soon make good on an earlier commitment to build facilities at the Rafah border crossing from Egypt into the Gaza Strip for transporting goods across the border.

It was all good news for Arafat, who dubbed the meeting "positive and fruitful," although Palestinian officials had hoped that Rabin also would announce the release of more Palestinian prisoners. Arafat suffered public humiliation Friday when he was booed out of a mosque in Gaza where a militant Islamic activist--killed in a car bombing--was being mourned.

"I am desperate," Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath told the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharanot, in an interview published Tuesday before the summit. ". . . We cannot handle the closure and Rabin's loathing of us."

Shaath said that the closure of the Gaza Strip had ruined the Palestinian Authority's efforts to attract investors there and was driving Palestinians into the ranks of the opposition. He said Palestinians were also infuriated by Israel's plans for economic cooperation with Jordan, with whom Israel has signed a peace treaty.

"I follow all you are planning to do with the Jordanians and I am exploding with despair and anger," Shaath said. "Rabin is deliberately slow with us and very fast with the Jordanians."

Aides to Foreign Minister Shimon Peres were taking credit Tuesday for Rabin's decision to try to ease tensions with Arafat and the Palestinians.

"Rabin has finally recovered from the joy of the perfect enemy," said one aide, referring to Rabin's intense personal involvement in negotiating the treaty with Jordan. "He understands that he still has the Palestinian chapter on his hand, and that we won't gain anything from the feeling of rejection that the Palestinians have had during the festivities surrounding the peace treaty with Jordan."

The aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Rabin was alarmed by Arafat's declining popularity among Palestinians. Opposition to Arafat cuts across political boundaries, with members of Fatah, the guerrilla group Arafat founded, complaining just as bitterly as Islamic militants about his authoritarian style of governing and his failure to win concessions from Israel.

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