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Christopher cements relations with Israel

THE FIRST signs of a possible deal to set aside the deportee problem and re-start the Middle East peace talks began to emerge last night, as the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, completed two days of talks in Jerusalem.

It was clear that US pressure for flexibility had been directed more at the Palestinians than the Israelis, with whom Mr Christopher emphasised US relations had been strengthened and deepened. Not surprisingly therefore, the steps forward came from the Palestinian side: the delegation's spokeswoman, Hanan Ashrawi, spoke of 'evolving ideas' which had emerged in discussions with Mr Christopher and which were 'worth thinking about'.

Mrs Ashrawi's words were hesitant and circumspect, and she stressed that no agreement had been reached, and many obstacles remained. However, her comments constituted the first serious sign that the Palestinian delegation may be forced to relax its refusal to return to the talks until all the deportees are returned. Not only have the Palestinians come under US pressure to be flexible, but also under pressure from their Arab partners, who have shown impatience to return to the negotiations.

Mrs Ashrawi's comments suggest that the delegation now believes a way can be found to agree on compromise terms for a resumption of talks, boycotted by the Palestinians and their Arab partners, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, since the December deportation. The possible deal would centre on a comprehensive agreement whereby Israel agreed to human rights improvements in the occupied territories, and speeding up the review of deportee cases.

The Palestinian delegation will now consult with the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Tunis, to see whether such a deal should be done. No further decisions are expected until the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, heads to Washington for his first meeting with President Bill Clinton next month.

In addition to the moves on the deportee question, the main message from Mr Christopher's visit is that the new US administration is determined to cement its relations with Israel. It was significant that during his winding-up statement last night, no mention of the deportees was made in specific terms, and only one paragraph of his statement was given to sum marising his talks with the Palestinians. His emphasis was almost entirely on the bonding between Mr Rabin and himself, which he said should be symbolic of the shared values between the two countries.

Mr Christopher went out of his way to stress that he had understood the special history of Israel during his visit, when he toured the Holocaust memorial and looked at the strategic geography by helicopter. He said he now understood the security challenges which Israel continues to face on its way to securing a just and lasting peace. Mr Christopher said he believed Israel was doing 'all it can' to achieve such a peace.