Israel Cabinet Debates Peace

After several delays, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally presented the land-for-security agreement with the Palestinians to his Cabinet Thursday for its approval.

The Cabinet was expected to narrowly ratify the agreement despite vocal opposition by several ministers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's aide Uri Elitsur said the 17-member cabinet would meet for eight hours on Thursday and if necessary on Friday and would surely ratify the deal.

But with each minister likely to speak at length, a vote may have to wait until Sunday after a break for the Jewish sabbath, another official said. "They obviously feel that what they say is for posterity, given the importance of the agreement."

Netanyahu's office said it had decided to go ahead with the Cabinet meeting because it had received written U.S. guarantees that 30 Palestinians wanted by Israel would be arrested.

The arrests would take place in stages, according to a statement by his office, with a third of the suspects being rounded up at a time over the course of the 12-week timetable set to carry out the agreement. Netanyahu put off the cabinet debate three times over a demand that Palestinians supply a clear commitment to round up the fugitives.

One Israeli official forecast nine ministers would back the deal and four oppose it. Of four ministers who were undecided, some indicated they might abstain.

Netanyahu's spokesman Aviv Bushinsky said the prime minister began the meeting by stating Israel's view that a transfer of land would be halted should the 700-member Palestine National Council fail in December to formally revoke clauses in the more than 30-year-old PLO covenant calling for Israel's destruction.

Israel and the Palestinians are at odds over the meaning of the deal's language over the covenant issue.

Netanyahu appointed Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai to head a five-minister team, including former military officials and Jewish settlers, to review an as-yet unpublished draft of a map showing land to be transferred.

Three of the five ministers are known to oppose the accord while the other two, Mordechai and Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, helped to negotiate it. The team was given three days to decide but Netanyahu said he intended an earlier cabinet vote.

Many Jewish settler leaders oppose ceding any of the Land of Israel that they say was promised the Jews in the Bible.

Indicative of the huge U.S. effort needed to referee the deal between two deeply mistrustful sides is the fact Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke by telephone with Netanyahu four times in three days to resolve the arrest dispute.

Public debate has been no less rancorous between the sides.

In a television discussion over the deal's wording, Arafat's adviser Ahmed Tibi called Israeli Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh the "king of lies" while Naveh accused Tibi of leading a "Nazi propagand campaign" on the deal's meaning.

The agreement will go next week to Israel's parliament, where Netanyahu can expect overwhelming approval, supported by a safety net from centrist and left-wing parties.

The accord, signed last month during a White House ceremony, requires Israel to withdraw from another 13 percent of the West Bank in exchange for Palestinian security steps.

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