Departure of Israelis stuns PLO negotiators

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'IT's absolutely useless,' Nabil Shaath said as he stood by the Nile minutes after the Israeli delegation had suddenly left for Tel Aviv yesterday. 'I tried my best to persuade them to stay on. We still have some matters which we need to finish but they're not coming back before Sunday. They have promised to continue the negotiations by fax and telephone . . . '

The Cairo talks have exactly six days left if the first main deadline of the Arafat-Rabin Declaration of Principles is to be met. The first Palestinian policemen were supposed to arrive in Gaza and Jericho this week. Instead, Mr Shaath, the PLO negotiator, went off empty- handed to join his colleagues where they sat in isolated fury in the Italian restaurant of the Sheraton Hotel, stunned that Israel's apparent eagerness to complete the negotiations had suddenly evaporated.

The Israeli delegation had left without notice, avoiding the television crews who were waiting to hear that the peace talks were finally - to use the cliche so beloved by PLO and Israeli negotiators - 'back on track'.

Both sides knew about the suicide bombing in the Israeli town of Afula yesterday. 'It's one of the important reasons why we are pushing for the signing of this agreement - to stop all the killings on all sides like in Gaza, Hebron and Afula,' Mr Shaath said irritably. But this was not the reason the Israelis gave him for their sudden departure.

'They said they have to be there (in Israel) for the Holocaust commemorations. And I do very much appreciate the need for mourning and remembrance for the Holocaust, in which we share their indignation. But we have also done this many times . . . every time the anniversary of the Sabra and Chatila massacres or the intifada comes round, we spent an hour in mourning and remembrance. We used to pray for those who died - but then we continued with our talks with the Israelis.'

So was it history that was tormenting these all-important talks on the banks of the Nile? Mr Shaath was evidently anxious to show the Israelis that he understood their act of remembrance. Crueller hearts might have reminded him that one of the greatest of all Palestinian nationalists, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, had once personally encouraged Himmler's extermination of the Jews of Europe.

Unkind souls might also have reminded the Israelis how their former prime minister walked out of the original Madrid peace talks in October 1991 in order to return to Israel for the Jewish sabbath, to the protests of Palestinian delegates who had foregone their own sabbath prayers to attend the conference.

Yet the Palestinians suspected that yesterday's further postponement by the Israelis reflected not so much an act of remembrance but - as one of them put it - an attempt by Mr Rabin 'to put yet more pressure on Yasser Arafat' to concede all Israel's demands in the talks.

'It needs the will to really finish on time,' Mr Shaath said later. 'Any hesitation over the 13 April deadline and the Israelis will bear the whole responsibility. It is needless. We should finish by the 13th . . . it should be adhered to very, very strictly.'

According to Mr Shaath, the deployment and operational conditions of the Palestinian police force have been agreed - even though Israeli spokesmen now say they will be unarmed and 'co-ordinated' with the Israeli army. All that remains, the PLO delegation says, is the signing of the agreement.

Yasser Arafat arrived in Cairo yesterday, allegedly for just this purpose. But there are rumours in the Arab world that President Hafez el-Assad, worried that Syria would be isolated in the event of an early signing, is insisting that Mr Arafat also delay the agreement.

To make matters worse, Mustapha Naji, the new Palestinian mayor of Hebron, flew into Cairo from Tel Aviv yesterday in the hope of convincing the PLO leader of the imminent collapse of the organisation's authority in the occupied territories. 'We fear that Arafat simply doesn't understand - or want to hear about - the situation on the ground,' said one of Mr Naji's assistants as the plane flew through a sandstorm towards Egypt. 'Most of out people have lost all faith in this agreement and Arafat won't understand this. We have to tell him the truth.'

Leading article, page 17

Last exit to Jericho?, page 18

(Photograph omitted)