Hours of fruitless talks between the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, and Israeli and Palestinian leaders - they were due to meet again last night - proved the "peace process" for which President Clinton promised his full support in 1993 is, in effect, dead. The losers - at least for now - are the Palestinians.
The day began with individual visits to Downing Street by Mr Netanyahu and Mr Arafat, both of whom thanked the Prime Minister for his encouragement, but then went on to blame each other for the collapse of the Oslo Agreement. Mr Arafat warned of "chaos" in the Arab world if the original land-for- peace deal agreed in Washington was not fulfilled. Mr Netanyahu's spokesman warned that if the deal was "land-for-terrorism", Israel could no longer continue talking. Mr Netanyahu's advisers remained publicly optimistic, talking in hopeful soundbites. Israel had gone the "extra mile", Mr Netanyahu himself said. But US officials apparently did not discover what this extra mile was. Nor - in five hours of talks with Mr Netanyahu - did Mrs Albright.
The Palestinians openly admitted that they now accepted a forthcoming Israeli withdrawal from only 13 per cent of occupied Palestinian land, which was America's "compromise" proposal to break Mr Netanyahu's insistence on giving up only another 9 per cent. But a glance at the original Oslo Agreement shows what a mockery the discussions have now become of the document so solemnly signed by Israel and the PLO five years ago. Under the terms of the 13 September 1993 treaty, Israel should now have withdrawn from much of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in preparation for final-status talks on refugees and settlements next year. But the PLO still controls only 4 per cent of the land for itself - a larger part is under joint Israeli and Palestinian control - and Mr Netanyahu, far from discussing Jewish settlements next year, is busy building more on occupied land close to Jerusalem. Mr Arafat, who is supposed to be in charge of security in PLO territory, now boasts 12 intelligence services (he is allowed three under Oslo) and his secret-service men have killed 14 Palestinians in PLO detention.
Yet he is now being asked by the Israelis to demonstrate greater security for them with fewer policemen; his 40,000 police are way over the Oslo- permitted figure. The figures of 13 per cent and 9 per cent over which the two sides are now haggling bear no relation to any paragraph in the agreement.
While Mrs Albright lunched with the Israeli leader at the Grosvenor House Hotel, Mr Arafat sat in his suite at Claridges hotel, expressing his ever greater resentment at being kept waiting. "We only came because the Americans asked us," Saeb Erekat, one of his ministers, said. Mrs Albright called to apologise, but Mr Arafat then kept her waiting for half an hour before turning up at the Churchill Hotel.
As photographers took pictures in the conference room, Mr Arafat sat in silence, staring for much of the time at the floor. He left within 90 minutes, in silence. "The Palestinians have accepted the figure of 13 per cent," Mr Erekat said. "But what we want is the full implementation of Oslo ... we are not optimistic about the talks." In the Churchill Hotel, US officials admitted that the "peace process" appeared to be near an end.
Behind them in the lobby stood the bust of Winston Churchill, himself a fervent Zionist but one who by 1948 pronounced Palestine a "hell-disaster". He would have said the same again yesterday.
Talks were due to continue again today.
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