Middle East: Israel and PLO agree to kickstart peace talks

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The Independent Online
Israel and the PLO last night agreed to resume negotiations after a fraught six months marked by Palestinian suicide bombings, new Israeli settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank, plus the belief that the Middle East peace process was all but dead. But despite this small advance, Rupert Cornwell and David Usborne suggest, its hold on life remains tenuous in the extreme.

Some measure of hope was restored to the battered Middle East peace process last night after agreement was struck on a resumption of meetings of Israeli and Palestinian negotiating committees next week.

The break in the deadlock between the two sides was achieved at talks between the Israeli Foreign Minister, David Levy, and the chief Palestinian negotiator, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, in New York. They were bought together by the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.

The decision means that the process started by the 1995 interim peace agreement between Israel and the PLO can get under way again. The peace talks sputtered to a halt in March after Israel broke new ground on a Jewish housing project in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians are hoping to make their capital. "The two sides agreed to resume negotiations of the [joint] committees established to implement the interim agreement," Ms Albright said in a brief statement.

Earlier efforts to re-start the meetings were postponed once more following Palestinian suicide bombings on 30 July and again on 4 September, for which the Islamic resistance group Hamas claimed responsibility. The blasts claimed the lives of 20 Israelis in West Jerusalem.

The first committee meeting will take place on 6 October and will again bring Mr Levy and Mahmoud Abbas to the negotiating table. Initial issues for discussion include the opening of a Palestinian airport and seaport and agreements for safe passage between the Palestinian self-rule areas in Gaza and the West Bank.

The decision represent the first fruit of Ms Albright's first visit to the region three weeks ago. The Secretary of State has been attempting to capitalise on those first contacts with a series of meetings with officials from the area on the fringes of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York.

In a speech to the Assembly yesterday, Mr Levy proposed a code of conduct to guide further process. It included a call for the end of all use of violence for political ends and an agreement that all contacts be pursued bilaterally by the two sides, not through international bodies such as the UN.

Even though yesterday's announcement gives ground for fresh optimism, both sides cautioned that much more healing would be needed. Israeli officials, for instance, remained adamant that security remained far and away the most important item and that unless Yasser Arafat made serious moves against the Islamic terrorists operating from the West Bank and Gaza, even the smallest territorial concessions were "inconceivable".

The Palestinians were sounding equally sceptical, warning that Israel had to show it respected the deals already signed with the PLO and demanding creation of a watchdog body to monitor Israel's compliance with Oslo.

"We are not interested in meetings for meetings' sake, where there is no substance," said Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian education minister and former PLO spokeswoman.

None the less the mood is brighter than two weeks ago when Ms Albright visited the region in the aftermath of fresh suicide bombings in Jerusalem, and famously let it be known that unless Israelis and Palestinians alike mended their ways she would not be back in a hurry.

Since then both sides have edged back from the brink. Dozens of suspected members of Hamas - the group which claims to have carried out the suicide bombings - have been arrested by Mr Arafat's forces, and several of its schools and other institutions shut down.

Even Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, yesterday conceded that these were "steps in the right direction." For its part, Israel is releasing half, or $17m, of the taxes collected from Palestinians who work in the country - money it was supposed to hand over to the Palestinian authority, but which was frozen after the terrorist bombings.