Arafat close to West Bank deal with Israel

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THE ISRAELIS and Palestinians are close to a peace deal, the US said yesterday, ending a two-year stalemate in negotiations. A special summit will be held in Washington next month, following a breakthrough in weekend talks sponsored by America.

"We have made progress on the path of peace," President Bill Clinton said yesterday after a meeting with Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu in the White House.

"There has been a significant narrowing of the gaps between the two parties."

He said that a summit would follow in mid-October in Washington, where it was hoped that a package could be tied up. "There is still a substantial amount of work to do until a comprehensive agreement can be reached," he admitted.

But he added: "We could finish it in mid-October, and I hope we do."

Both America's Middle East negotiator, Dennis Ross, and the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, will return to the region to prepare the October summit in the next week.

If the President manages to get an agreement, it will do him a lot of good abroad and at home at a time when his international image needs burnishing.

With the prospect of peace in Northern Ireland, it would add to his legacy as a peacemaker, perhaps deflecting public attention from his misdemeanours.

The deal is expected to involve Israeli withdrawal from 13 per cent of the occupied West Bank, but with 3 per cent held as a "nature reserve", that would be patrolled by Israeli security forces and where Palestinian and Israeli settlement would be ruled out.

Though it would be less than was held out by the Oslo Accords, the deal would at least break the deadlock and allow hope that a more comprehensive package was feasible.

Hopes raised, page 15