Netanyahu set to lift siege of Ramallah as talks resume

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The Independent Online
Israel and the Palestinians are to resume negotiations this week on Hebron, the last West Bank town still under occupation, but there was little optimism on either side yesterday that they would reach early agreement on the scheduled redeployment of Israeli troops.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, told parliament in Jerusalem that he was still waiting for Palestinian counter-proposals. He indicated, however, that Israel would soon lift the siege imposed on the West Bank town of Ramallah after Palestinian gunmen shot dead a mother and child driving to a nearby settlement last Wednesday.

The decision to return to the negotiating table was taken during a 10- minute telephone conversation on Sunday night between Mr Netanyahu and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. But Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian minister who was present when Mr Arafat telephoned the Prime Minister, told foreign correspondents yesterday that the prospects were still very bad.

"They've been meeting ad nauseam," she said. "When there are talks, there is no substance and there are no results." The question was whether there was the political will on the Israeli side - and whether the United States was ready to take its mediating role seriously.

The Israelis, for their part, blame the Palestinians for needlessly dragging out the Hebron talks and accuse them of inciting a new round of violence. The Palestinians' main concern is to ensure that the Likud government completes the rest of the interim peace accord after pulling out of Hebron.

Under an agreement reached with the previous Labour government, Israeli troops were supposed to have redeployed in March, but the withdrawal was postponed after an epidemic of suicide bombings inside Israel by Islamic militants. Israel wants to enhance the security of the 450 settlers living in the centre of Hebron among 150,000 Arabs. The Palestinians insist the terms cannot be renegotiated. Only their implementation, they say, is open to discussion.

The Palestinians are also demanding that Mr Netanyahu drop plans to expand Jewish settlements on the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem. Dr Ashrawi yesterday condemned last Friday's decision to restore incentives for settlers to make their homes there. "Land for peace," she said, "is the very essence of the peace process."

Washington seems to agree, and is urging Mr Netanyahu to think again. Three former secretaries of state - James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger and Cyrus Vance - appealed to him yesterday not to jeopardise all that had been achieved over two decades of peacemaking. "Such a tragic result," they wrote, "will threaten the security of Israel, the Palestinians and friendly Arab countries, and will damage US interests in the Middle East."

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