JERUSALEM – Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Monday that the army was prepared to withdraw from two West Bank towns, Bethlehem and Hebron, as long as they remained quiet and if the Palestinians assumed control of security.
His comments added to other hints that a deal may be taking shape to end Israel's monthlong occupation of seven West Bank towns and cities. A top member of the militant group Hamas said the group was considering stopping suicide attacks if Israel withdraws; and an Israeli official said the government was looking into resuming security cooperation with the Palestinians after it pulls out.
However, more hawkish elements of Israel's government expressed deep skepticism about the possibility of reaching any deal that would hold. They suggested that Israel would remain in the Palestinian towns for considerable time – even until Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was no longer in power – and suffice for now with efforts to aid the population there.
Also Monday, Israeli police reopened the university offices of the leading Palestinian official in Jerusalem, Sari Nusseibeh. Police closed his office two weeks ago, alleging that Nusseibeh, the president of Al Quds University, had violated peace accords by engaging in Palestinian political activity in Jerusalem.
Nusseibeh, who is also the chief representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Jerusalem, said he signed a document Monday agreeing not to use the premises for political activity. However, he said he'd conduct his PLO activity elsewhere.
The Palestinians want east Jerusalem for the capital of a future state, while Israel claims sovereignty over the entire city.
The emerging divisions in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government over the issue of a West Bank withdrawal came after Peres and Cabinet member Dan Naveh, a member of a member of Sharon's hawkish Likud party, met Saturday in a Tel Aviv hotel with a Palestinian delegation headed by Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat.
The meeting was also attended by the new Palestinian interior minister, Abdel Razak Yehiyeh, who is responsible for security in the Palestinian territories.
The Israeli daily Haaretz reported Monday that Yehiyeh outlined a proposal to resume security cooperation with Israel after Israeli troops withdraw. Security cooperation, in which the sides share information and act jointly where possible to prevent attacks, ground to a halt after fighting erupted in September 2000.
Palestinians would undertake to confiscate illegal weapons and arrest militants, Haaretz reported. In return, the newspaper said, Israel would free prisoners arrested in the fighting, end its strikes on Palestinian targets and end its "targeted killings" of militants – which the Palestinians call assassinations.
The proposal was similar to a deal worked out last summer by CIA director George Tenet that was never implemented as the violence escalated.
An Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the proposal was being discussed as part of a broader discussion on reforming the Palestinian security and financial apparatus.
But Ranaan Gissin, Sharon's spokesman, said Israel wouldn't make any concessions before the Palestinians moved to end attacks.
"There will be no concession on security until we see them take steps," he said, adding that as a first move the Palestinians should assume security control in the Gaza Strip to show that they were willing to crack down on militants.
Naveh said he doubted the Palestinians would crack down. He suggested the Israeli army would remain in the West Bank until the Palestinian leadership is replaced.
"It's clear that the situation on the ground is such that we cannot pull out our forces from the Palestinian towns," he said. "As far as the Palestinian plans that are published, even if there are people over there who have right intentions, there is no one there who can take responsibility on the Palestinian side."
"To my mind, as long as Arafat is leading the Palestinian Authority, there is no chance reform will take and the voices of reason that exist will be afraid to speak up," he added.
Earlier Monday, Peres confirmed Palestinian claims of an Israeli offer to pull troops out of the West Bank towns of Hebron and Bethlehem if Palestinian security takes control. He did not say when it might take place.
"We really want to get out of there as soon as (Palestinian) security is deployed," Peres told Israel Radio. Asked if he was confirming reports that the army would withdraw from towns, Peres said, "Yes, there are towns that are more quiet than others; Hebron, Bethlehem and Jericho."
Israeli troops moved into seven of the eight major Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank after two suicide bomb attacks in Jerusalem more than a month ago. Jericho, which has been quiet through most of the Palestinian uprising, is the one West Bank town that has not been occupied.
Palestinian officials have demanded Israel withdraw, saying they can't prevent attacks against Israelis as long as the army is in place, enforcing curfews and hunting down militants.