Arafat and Israel hold secret talks

THE PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, secretly met Jacques Neriah, an envoy of the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, in Cairo yesterday in an attempt to overcome the impasse in negotiations following the Hebron mosque massacre on 25 February.

The meeting was secret because Mr Arafat has ruled out a return to official peace talks unless the United Nations Security Council provides some protection for Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation. Yesterday there was another reminder of their vulnerability when two more Palestinians were shot dead in Hebron in clashes with Israeli troops.

'We cannot speak of a resumption of negotiations before knowing how things work out at the Security Council and the decision that it will take,' Mr Arafat told a press conference in Cairo following talks with the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, and the Foreign Minister, Amr Musa.

'We insist that its resolution includes a total condemnation of this hideous crime and stipulates international protection for the Palestinians as well as disarmament of settlers,' he said.

'The evacuation of settlers from the Hebron region is also essential,' he added, referring to the 5,000 Jews in the Kiryat Arba settlement on the outskirts of Hebron, home of the Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, who perpetrated the Hebron massacre.

Israel's Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, yesterday questioned the wisdom of keeping 400 Jewish settlers in the heart of Hebron, but he stopped short of saying settlers should be removed.

Western diplomats have for years despaired of the PLO seeking retribution and international recognition of the justice of their cause through tabling UN resolutions, rather than moving to see the implementation of practical steps to end the Israeli occupation. This time, PLO officials in Tunis argue, the situation is different. Mr Arafat needs a UN resolution condemning the massacre and promising some form of international presence in the occupied territories as a figleaf to cover his own impotence.

For that is how even his most loyal supporters in Tunis regard his position. Even in his darkest moments Mr Arafat could count on a bedrock of support among members of his mainstream Fatah movement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza strip. The credibility of his position, and the legitimacy of his leadership of the Palestinian nationalist movement, rested on this support. Now, for the first time, he is being widely vilified even among Fatah.

What the PLO in Tunis is seeking from Israel and the international community is to move speedily at both the security and political levels. They want the adoption of practical measures such as disarming Jewish settlers to ensure the security of the Palestinians on the ground; and they require measures that will bolster the political stance of Mr Arafat by accelerating the implementation of the Gaza-Jericho accord. In short, Mr Arafat is appealing to Mr Rabin for help. PLO officials warn apocalyptically about 'the volcano' that could erupt if the Israelis do not take urgent actions on both these levels. But they are also acutely aware that the whole strategy of the PLO is now exposed. 'Our policy was to say that all would be all right once we achieved facts on the ground, once the chairman (Arafat) entered Jericho,' confided one political associate. 'This would create an irreversible momentum. That was our thinking. Now we see it will not work like that.'

And, he added, nor could it have done. In fact, if the Hebron massacre had taken place after Mr Arafat's homecoming, this would have exposed still further the limitations of the PLO-Israel accords. For by delaying discussions on the future of the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, they have left a ticking time bomb. The settlements will always be the main point of friction. Although support is growing in the Israeli cabinet for removal of the most fractious of the settlers from Hebron, Mr Rabin is adamant that no such precedent is set.

Mr Arafat is in a quandary. He cannot be seen to be returning to talks with Israel while the rage over the Hebron massacre is still burning, and at least until the 40-day period of mourning is over. Officials are openly talking of activating the secret channel that led to the PLO-Israel accord. And the talks in Cairo with Mr Rabin's special adviser have raised hopes that a way out of the impasse may be being explored.

MARJAYOUN, Lebanon - Seven militiamen from the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army and two civilians were killed yesterday in roadside bomb blasts on the edge of the buffer zone occupied by Israel's army in southern Lebanon, AP reports. Hizbollah claimed responsibility for two of the bombings.