Negotiations between Israel and the PLO entered a new phase on 24 August when Israel extended the responsibilities of the Palestine National Authority (PNA) on the West Bank. The PNA is now in charge of education in the Ramallah district, with the remaining six educational districts due to come under PNA jurisdiction by 29 August.

Education is the first of five spheres of civilian authority which will be handed over to Palestinians on the West Bank not yet under self rule. The other areas are health, social welfare, tourism and direct taxation. In Cairo, the two negotiating teams initialled on 24 August a 25-page document outlining the transfer of these powers to the PNA.

‘Today is the beginning of the genuine take-off of the implementation of the peace agreement in the West Bank,’ the chief Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath said prior to the initialling. He said he expected the hand-over of civilian powers to be completed by mid-September at the latest.

Other areas of the talks have made slower progress. The plan to open secure routes for Palestinians to pass through Israel between Gaza and Jericho has been delayed from 21 August because of a dispute over whether Palestinians should be allowed to carry weapons on the journey.

Israel’s deputy foreign affairs minister Yossi Beilin, on a tour of Scandinavian states aimed at speeding up funding to support Palestinian self rule, said on 24 August that Israel was closer to peace with Syria than ever before.

‘There is an Israeli readiness to pull out of the Golan after years of saying we would not give back an inch,’ Beilin told a news conference in Oslo. ‘Once we sit down together in direct negotiations, I believe it would only be a matter of some months until we could sign an agreement with Syria.’

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has promised to take the issue of withdrawal to a referendum before any deal is signed. However, winning support, particularly from the military, could prove difficult. Israeli chief of staff Ehod Barak said in Washington on 17 August that Israel, for defensive reasons, cannot risk withdrawing from the strategic plateau of the Golan under any circumstances. ‘From a professional military standpoint, as long as there is no peace we need every metre of the Golan Heights, and also at a time of peace we had better stay on the Golan Heights,’ he said.