Now for the Hard Part

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JERUSALEM: Getting Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu to agree on Israeli troop withdrawals from the West Bank may prove easier than convincing the Israeli Parliament to approve the accord. A bitterly divided Israeli Cabinet, torn by accusations by hard-liners that Netanyahu had given away everything and got nothing in return, finally agreed to withdraw troops from the West Bank, clearing the way for a Parliamentary debate Thursday. Debate in the Israeli Cabinet was intense, described by one Israeli official as "vociferous" and held amidst "tremendous tension." Early in the day, the entire session abruptly ended after Cabinet ministers received word from an Israeli TV report that the United States did not intend to let Israel decide for itself the extent of troop withdrawals from the West Bank. Debate resumed only after U.S. envoy Dennis Ross called each of the ministers to assure them that the report was not official U.S. policy. For the Palestinian cabinet, approval was easy. A final vote count was not made available, but according to Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Cabinet authorized the agreement by a large majority. Under the agreement, Israel is to give the Palestinians control of 80 percent of the Biblical city of Hebron within days. Israel also agreed to roll back its presence in the West Bank in three stages - beginning in six weeks and ending in August 1998. Ross said the agreement was "fully consistent" with the 1995 Israel-Palestinian agreement, but the part dealing with Hebron was more detailed. In Washington, President Clinton heartily endorsed the deal. The agreement "brings us another step closer to a lasting, secure Middle East peace," he said. "Once again, the forces of peace have prevailed over a history of division." But the thorniest issues still lie ahead: concurrent to the third-stage pullout, the two sides will hold final-status negotiations on Palestinian sovereignty, final borders, and the future of Jerusalem and of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.