Israel issues warning ahead of talks

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JUST HOURS before the start of the latest US Middle East peace effort, Israel sent a stern warning to the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, that he should not make a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood in the event of failure at this weekend's talks.

Israel also made public a list of demands, headed by a signed security guarantee, that it would require before ceding any more territory.

Speaking in Washington, on the record and clearly with the full authority of the Israeli leadership, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Zalman Shoval, said that any declaration of Palestinian statehood would be "not only illegal, but very foolish and counterproductive". It would "probably put an end to the peace process" and have "very serious consequences for the whole area and for the Palestinians themselves".

Mr Shoval said that Israel was looking for "enforceable, checkable commitments" on security from the Palestinians "otherwise, we're where we were before".

Undertakings required and made so far under the Oslo accords, he said, were too unspecific, and he listed the conditions that Israel would be seeking, indicating that it would agree to withdraw progressively from the disputed territory as and when individual undertakings were fulfilled.

These included the signing of a "working paper" on security, setting out in detail exactly what would be done, from catching and punishing terrorists to the destruction of the Hamas organisation and its infrastructure. Israel also wanted the Palestinians to agree to hand over illegal arms "beyond what was agreed at Oslo", to reduce its police force to the 24,000 set at Oslo (Israel reckons that it now stands at 40,000), measures to end anti-Israeli propaganda in schools and public places, and the scrapping of anti-Israel elements of the Palestinian Charter.

The ambassador's presentation was just one element, if easily the sharpest and most authoritative, in a day of frenetic lobbying by representatives of Israeli and Arab interests in Washington.

The Arab lobby, which has grown in strength and confidence over the past year, was out in force, arguing for a fair hearing and fair treatment and against any intolerance of Islam in the United States.

In London Yasser Arafat emerged from an hour-long meeting with Tony Blair expressing optimism in the talks "because of the energy and the time that have been invested by President Clinton".

The White House, meanwhile, gave details of how the planned four days of talks would be arranged, stressing how closely President Clinton - who also has a personal interest in showing that his international clout is unimpaired by the Monica Lewinsky scandal - would be involved at all stages. The first set of what are described as "three-way" meetings will be held today at the White House, with public statements afterwards by all three leaders: the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr Arafat and Mr Clinton.

The talks will then resume at a secure and secluded conference centre in one of the more picturesque reaches of Chesapeake Bay, about an hour from central Washington.