Arafat pleads with West to rescue deal

The Palestine Liberation Organisation is to ask Britain and its European partners to get involved in a new round of diplomacy to save Middle East peace negotiations from collapse.

Frustrated by Israeli bargaining tactics and threatened by Islamic opponents, the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, yesterday sent envoys to Europe, the United States, Russia and Japan to ask for help.

The PLO hopes Britain can take a prominent role because John Major is to make an official visit to Israel and Gaza next month, while the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, is to travel to the Middle East around the same time.

British officials will tell the Prime Minister Mr Arafat faces disaster because he cannot keep order while appearing impotent in the face of relentless Israeli negotiating pressure.

But, there is scepticism in the Foreign Office that international pressure on Israeli may produce more flexibility. "It is a notoriously unreliable instrument" one diplomat said.

Under the self-rule agreement signed in Washington in 1993, Palestinian elections were due to take place in July last year after Israeli troops pulled out of Gaza and the main towns in the West Bank.

But Israeli troops have not redeployed on the West Bank and the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, has said it is impossible to pull back unless Mr Arafat can stop attacks on Israeli targets. The PLO says the lack of progress strengthens militant claims that Mr Arafat has sold out, creating a vicious circle which the PLO chairman cannot break.

"We demanded an accurate and honest commitment to what was agreed upon, unless they think that elections are not important to us, and that the withdrawal from the populated areas and redeployment in the West Bank are not important," Mr Arafat said. "Now they are using the pretext of violent operations against citizens."

Mr Arafat pointed out 238 Palestinians had been killed since the agreement was signed, compared to 112 Israelis.

His latest move came at a fraught session of the PLO's executive committee in Cairo, which decided not to suspend the talks with Israel. But the committee said that after 10 rounds of fruitless talks, the negotiations were in a stalemate.

Mr Arafat's initial intention, true to his old instincts, was to do the rounds of Arab heads of government, although this is unlikely to yield more than empty rhetoric.

But the attempt to arouse international action is a new way to achieve the Palestinian goal of getting foreign help in their negotiations with an opponent who holds all the cards. It should prod the US and Russia to examine their policy as sponsors of the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, which provided the formal negotiating framework.

The PLO said the peace talks were undermined by the continuous building of Israeli settlements, the confiscation of Palestinian land and an Israeli programme to change the demographic character of Jerusalem. Mr Rabin has said new settlements will be limited to projects agreed by the government. But Israel has made clear Palestinian aspirations to Jerusalem are not negotiable.