Arafat's sacred day fails to dawn: Fear of violence hangs over occupied territories as PLO and Israel miss deadline for start of troop withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho

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The Independent Online
ALL THE old fire had been knocked out of him. Yasser Arafat's face was grey, his head slightly bowed, his PLO retainers watching grimly from the wings of Egypt's ornate presidential palace.

Usually he loves the television lights - he is, after all, now called President of Palestine - but he stared unblinking, almost frightened, at the battery of cameras. For once he had nothing to tell us, not even a scrap of cheer to brighten the eve of what he had repeatedly called a 'sacred day'.

He could announce no Israeli withdrawals from occupied territories today, no agreements on the release of Palestinian prisoners, on road passages for Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza or on the size of the Palestinian autonomous zone of Jericho. The word 'Jerusalem' did not pass his lips. Asked if there would be repercussions in the West Bank and Gaza because of the failure of the PLO and the Israelis to meet the deadline for the start of Israeli withrawal, he replied bleakly: 'I hope not.' It did not sound reassuring.

But we knew something had gone wrong in the talks between Mr Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin the moment the Israeli Prime Minister had walked into the room 20 minutes earlier, equally grave-faced, flanked by unsmiling negotiators. The words came out in Mr Rabin's familiar drawl but without the vigour he showed those three short months ago on the White House lawn. He talked of 'difficulties', difficulties over security, over those settlers' passages, over the 'frontiers' to be drawn between Palestinian autonomous zones and Israeli-occupied areas.

Of course, he told us it would make no difference. A delay of 10 days before further talks would help to clarify the issues. 'I don't see any reason why, if we reach agreement in 10 days from now . . . there will be any difficulty in achieving, in the time frame of the negotiations, the implementation of 'Gaza-Jericho first'.' In other words, the Israeli withdrawal could still be completed by April.

These coming 10 days are going to be hard for Mr Arafat. Mr Rabin talked about the ease of making a peace treaty with Egypt - 'we knew where the borders between Israel and Egypt were', he said - and the complexity of defining borders between Israelis and Palestinians. But he did not explain why none of these issues had been satisfactorily resolved.

And, save for repeating Mr Rabin's words and expressing his determination to follow through with the Declaration of Principles signed in Washington, Mr Arafat could give no explanations either. He spoke of 'some points of diversity' and 'some differences'. To start the process today, he said at one point, would be 'pointless'. Rarely had the press seen the PLO chairman so broken in spirit.

Having failed to demand international guarantees for the accord, he has pleaded with the Norwegians to put pressure on the Israelis to start their withdrawal today. He had pleaded with Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, to urge Israel to make at least a token withdrawal on his 'sacred' day.

And with growing concern, the PLO has learnt that US diplomats in the Middle East - always a reliable weather vane when plans start to go awry - are beginning to distance Washington from the agreement which the world was encouraged to applaud as the potential end of 100 years of conflict. The articles of agreement signed by the PLO and Israel, they say, have 'holes', unclear paragraphs which have allowed the timetable to drift. The accord, US embassies are telling American correspondents, should be seen as a 'step' on the road to peace, rather than an end in itself. This was not the way the agreement was presented on 13 September, when President Bill Clinton guided Mr Arafat and Mr Rabin to shake hands.

True, the two bilateral PLO-Israeli committees will continue to meet in El- Arish near Cairo and in Paris. True, the accord is by no means dead. Maybe the momentous but unresolved issues can be decided in just a week and a half, when Mr Rabin and Mr Arafat meet again in Cairo.

But Mr Arafat's enemies in the Arab world will be exulting today that he has been humiliated and last night, there hung over the protagonists in that chandeliered hall and the audience of negotiators the unspoken fear of blood and violence in the occupied territories when the Palestinians, who have been waiting for some token of their liberation, learn that they will have to wait again.

(Photograph omitted)