Barak refuses to let settlers advance

AN HOUR before dawn on Sunday, Israeli army trucks towed away five caravans illegally planted by Jewish militants on Shvut Rachel, a barren West Bank hilltop. Not only did the settlers go quietly, their leaders disowned them and apologised to the Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, for breaching an understanding not to surprise each other.

As a prelude to last night'ssummit with the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, Mr Barak was sending the most tangible signal so far that he intends to complete the peace process with the Palestinians. Territorial concessions will be decided by the government, not dictated by zealots.

And after the defeat of their right-wing patrons in the May election, the organised settlers are trying to save what they can, rather than extend their gains. In an unprecedented statement, Yehudit Tayar, a spokeswoman for the West Bank settlers' council, denounced the hilltop group for "a very irresponsible move taken without any consultation".

Mr Arafat is looking for much more, and he knows that the negotiations, which began in earnest at the Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip last night, will not bear easy fruit.

However, like most of the Arab world, he recognises that the climate has changed since Mr Barak unseated the reluctant peacemaker Benjamin Netanyahu.

Now, as the Israeli strategic commentator Ze'ev Schiff wrote in the liberal daily newspaper Ha'aretz yesterday: "The gruelling work must finally begin. Barak must pay off his debts instead of dining off declarations and promises."

The new team has not been sitting on its hands. The eviction of the unauthorised settlers was one of a battery of gestures to address long- standing Palestinian grievances.

Shlomo Ben-Ami, the Internal Security Minister, met Faisal Husseini, Mr Arafat's representative in Jerusalem, and resolved a chronic dispute over Orient House, the Palestinians' base in the city which both peoples claim as their capital.

Mr Ben-Ami also instructed the police to consult him before demolishing any Arab homes built without permits in Jerusalem, while the Interior Minister, Natan Sharansky, is reviewing the policy of withdrawing Jerusalem residence rights from Palestinians who have moved out of the city.

At the same time, the Justice Minister, Yossi Beilin, has come out against administrative detention, under which hundreds of Palestinians are held without trial. Last week, Israel released Osama Barham, the longest- serving administrative detainee, after six years. On Monday the Speaker, Avraham Burg, entertained his Palestinian counterpart, Ahmed Qurei, in Israel's parliament, which had earlier appointed the first Arab MPs to its foreign affairs and security committee.

But the Palestinians still remain wary, disturbed by Mr Barak's proposal to renegotiate the timing and some of the details of the Wye Agreement, signed by Messrs Arafat and Netanyahu in the autumn.