The door to peace is opened in vain

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A POLICE helicopter purred lazily over us when Benjamin Netanyahu came out of No 10 to tell us how grateful he was to Tony Blair. It drifted back, high in the spring sunshine, when Yasser Arafat emerged from Downing Street an hour later to thank the British Prime Minister for his commitment to the "peace process". How they loved Tony. How they hated each other. And all the while, behind us, looms that fateful building in which Lord Balfour had composed in 1917 Britain's declaration of support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

So there was "Bibi", immaculate as ever in dark suit and thick white hair, telling us that there could be progress if both sides showed "flexibility". Israel, he claimed, "had already gone the extra mile". The Palestinians took the view that Mr Netanyahu's extra mile was the distance that Israel's latest Jewish settlement extended into occupied Arab land. Mr Arafat - emerging from his own separate meeting with Mr Blair, ashen-faced, lower lip quivering, his keffiyeh untidy - warned only that "Netanyahu must take the responsibility of ... the chaos that might take place in the region if the result of these talks is not positive."

A mile away, through streets left empty by the bank holiday, the Israeli prime minister was already talking to Madeleine Albright, in the sumptuous suites of the Grosvenor House Hotel. The foyer - with its fake log fire and oil painting of ice skaters - looked ominously like the smoking room of the Titanic; and within minutes, there was Israel's spokesman, David Bar Ilan, with his ice-cold public school accent, strolling through the lobby to tell journalists - in response to Mr Arafat's statement - that "if the formula is land-for-terrorism, we can't go on with this".

It was the language of children that both sides spoke yesterday, the language of threat and false compromise. How Mr Netanyahu and Mr Arafat loved peace, strove for peace. But they could not even bring themselves to talk to each other. Mr Arafat was so politically weakened that all he could do, pathetically, was to accept Washington's demand for a further 13.1 per cent Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank - in itself a hopeless diminution of the Oslo agreement. In the Grosvenor House, Ms Albright- the supposedly tough-talking US Secretary of State who has used all the anger of a sheep to persuade the Israelis to stop building settlements on occupied Arab land and adhere to the Oslo timetable - tried to persuade Mr Netanyahu to cede more than 9 per cent of the land in the next handover of territory to Mr Arafat. In vain.

So much for the Palestinian state. So much for its putative capital of Jerusalem. So much for peace. Outside No 10, the networks were telling their viewers - in the words of the man from the BBC - that Netanyahu had "little room for compromise" because of his divided cabinet. There was no hint in his broadcast that Israel is not abiding by the terms of the signed Oslo deal.

Mr Bar Ilan spelt out the situation all too clearly. Israel wanted more security from Mr Arafat and demanded that he reduce the number of his Palestinian policemen. Better security, fewer police. Who, one wondered, dreamed up these crazed formulas?

The Blair theory, that "it's important just to talk", also failed yesterday. For all Messrs Netanyahu and Arafat wanted to do was blame the other for the darkness approaching the Middle East and make sure that the world took their side when the storm broke.

As for Ms Albright, she uncharacteristically avoided the press for much of the day; when she arrived in London on Sunday night, she had nothing to say. And precious little to do. Five years ago, on a bright autumn afternoon on the White House lawn, President Bill Clinton promised America's "active support" in "the difficult work that lies ahead". Yesterday, fearful as ever of the Israeli lobby in the United States, and unwilling to criticise Israel, Washington seemed ready to walk away from the "peace process" it once guaranteed.