Palestinian leaders insisted Friday on a far-reaching Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank, a move that dampened hopes for the success of the latest U.S. peace mission.
The Palestinian Cabinet decided it would not accept changes in a U.S.-backed plan accord reached a year ago. The ministers met late Friday, just before Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat entered talks with the chief U.S. Mideast envoy, Dennis Ross.Ross is shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, trying to win acceptance of a new U.S. proposal. The plan calls for an Israeli troop pullback from 13.1 percent of the West Bank over 12 weeks, with each gradual withdrawal accompanied by evidence that Arafat is cracking down on militant Muslim groups.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected the U.S. plan, saying he would not hand over more than 9 percent of the land to the Palestinians before beginning talks on final borders.
Under the 1997 accord, Israel had pledged to carry out three pull-backs by this summer. The Palestinians interpreted that to mean that by the end of the withdrawals, they would be in control of most of the West Bank before talks on a permanent peace agreement begin.
However, Netanyahu later said he would go ahead with only one withdrawal, and only if the Palestinians met a series of security demands, such as arresting and disarming Islamic militants.
The U.S. plan was aimed at breaking the yearlong stalemate by proposing a withdrawal more generous than the one offered by Israel, but far less than the Palestinians had expected.
Ross said Friday, after meetings with Netanyahu and Arafat, that the plan was first presented to both sides in mid-January and that the purpose of his trip was to "finalize the ideas."
"Both sides, I think, will be digesting some of what I have conveyed," Ross said, adding that he expected to hear the leaders' final response in another round of talks before returning to Washington.
Based on the report from Ross, President Clinton will decide whether to go public with the initiative, a step that would widely be seen as pressure on Israel.
Hanan Ashrawi, minister of education, said the Cabinet opposed any changes in the 1997 agreement.
"We are very clear on not reopening discussions or renegotiating signed agreements or accepting modifications that will violate the integrity of the agreements," Ashrawi said. The Cabinet also said all construction in Jewish settlements must cease.