Middle East talks in full flow

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TODAY IS the Jewish sabbath, a day on which the Israeli delegation to Middle East peace talks "can't work, can't drive, can't take notes," an American official noted yesterday. "But they can talk."

The talking between the Israelis and the Palestinians was in full flow yesterday at the Wye Plantation conference centre, in Maryland.

On Thursday, President Bill Clinton met Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat separately, then all three had dinner. Mr Arafat and Mr Netanyahu met for an hour yesterday morning, and were joined for lunch by Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State.

Ms Albright spoke with Mr Clinton, who was on the campaign trail in Chicago, but pledged to return by last night in case he was needed over the weekend.

The self-imposed deadline for talks is Sunday. The aim is to get an interim agreement that follows from the Oslo accords, the supposed basis for Middle East peace, and precede a more sensitive and far- reaching Final Status Agreement that resolves the question of Jerusalem and the Palestinian state.

Four groups were meeting yesterday, to discuss the new airport for Gaza that is supposed to be part of the economic rejuvenation of Palestine, the right of Palestinians to safe passage, security guarantees by the Palestinians and other economic issues. The toughest area so far is security for both sides.

Palestinians also want to talk about a further redeployment of Israeli forces from the occupied West Bank. Israel is offering to withdraw from 13 per cent of land, in addition to the 27 per cent it has already left; but of this, 3 per cent will be a "nature reserve" occupied by Israeli security personnel. Palestinians want the third redeployment to go-ahead, but Israel is said to be offering only 1 per cent of the territory - far too little for Palestine to accept.

The Final Status talks are supposed to be complete by next May, but so little headway has been made in the last two years that this now looks very difficult. If it is not achieved, the Palestinians feel they have little option but to take a unilateral move to statehood. Israel threatens to retaliate.

The knowledge that this is still ahead is a powerful incentive to both sides to deal; but there is still a sense that brinkmanship is the order of the day, and that agreement may take until Monday at the least.