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Christopher Tries to Revive Hebron Deal

Middle East: Israel, Palestinians blame each other for delays in transferring control of West Bank city.


JERUSALEM — In his last scheduled overseas trip before he steps down as the top U.S. diplomat, Secretary of State Warren Christopher arrived in the Middle East on Monday for a last-ditch effort to get Israel and the Palestinians to clinch a deal on an Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank city of Hebron.

Christopher was to meet late Monday in Cairo with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. He was also to meet today with Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, who is attending a regional economic conference in the Egyptian capital.

In Cairo, Egyptian Foreign Minister Amir Moussa told reporters Monday night that Christopher and mediators from the European Union would meet with Palestinian and Israeli officials at the economic conference to try to break the deadlock over Hebron.

Moussa was pessimistic that there will be a breakthrough at the three-day meeting, the first regional conference bringing together Arab states and Israel since the May election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"Until this time, we don't see any possibility for that" occurrence, Moussa said. "There is a gap--more than one gap--between the positions of Israel and Palestine."

He blamed Netanyahu, who he said had abandoned the guiding principle of the peace process: land for peace. "This is the problem," Moussa said. "He believes that he can have peace, territory and everything. He will never get it."

U.S. officials have been trying to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together on a Hebron agreement since late September, when gun battles on the West Bank and Gaza Strip left more than 75 Palestinians and Israelis dead. The negotiations lost momentum two weeks ago when Arafat took a brief trip to Europe and U.S. mediator Dennis Ross returned to Washington.

If the talks in Cairo appear to be bridging the gaps, Ross, who traveled to the region with Christopher, could resume his mediating role in Israel as early as today, U.S. officials said.

"Both sides are anxious to get [an agreement] done but are stuck on how to do it," said Edward Abington Jr., the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem who traveled to Cairo on Monday for the latest talks.

Even as hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews in black coats and hats staged a peaceful protest in Hebron against the planned withdrawal, Israeli and Palestinian officials alike professed a willingness Monday to move on the redeployment.

Each side blamed the other for the current delays in the deal on Hebron, the last of seven West Bank cities scheduled to be handed over to Palestinian control.

The Israeli withdrawal was to take place in March but has been delayed by Israel's concerns over security for about 450 Jewish settlers who live in the heart of the Arab city. Palestinians have said the security provisions in the original peace agreement are sufficient and have accused Israel of wanting to renegotiate a signed accord.

The renewed U.S. effort came in the wake of a weekend phone call between Netanyahu and Arafat, in which the Israeli leader emphasized his nation's commitment to the peace process and pressed the Palestinians to move forward on Hebron, the prime minister's spokesman said. Netanyahu "told Arafat it would be inadvisable to stretch this out because it might cause fanatic elements on both sides to take action against an agreement," spokesman David Bar-Illan said.

If an accord looks imminent, Netanyahu is prepared to cancel a scheduled visit to the United States this week and remain in Israel for the negotiations, Bar-Illan said.

Hassan Asfour, a member of the Palestinian negotiating team, said the weekend call failed to resolve the differences: "We are still sticking on the same points," including a demand by Israel that it be allowed to carry out preemptive security-related activities in the Palestinian-controlled areas.

But there were signs Monday that Israel was laying groundwork for an eventual troop withdrawal and questioning those it considers likely to try to disrupt the redeployment.

An army spokesman said Israeli forces could pull out of Hebron "very quickly" once the political decision is made. In the 80% of the city that is scheduled to be handed over to the Palestinian Authority, only a few buildings remain in Israeli hands, the spokesman said.

In the past few days, Israel's Shin Bet security service also has asked about a dozen suspected Jewish extremists to come in for questioning, Israel Radio said. But others were reported to have gone into hiding, apparently to avoid arrest.

Times staff writer John Daniszewski in Cairo contributed to this report.

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