Despairing end for Middle East `summit of hope'

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It was billed as a summit of hope, to "break the impasse in the peace process", as the official line referred to the weeks of frustration and blood which brought Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's Prime Minister, King Hussein of Jordan and the PLO's Yasser A rafat to Cairo yesterday. But, last night the talks ended in a statement that merely reaffirmed a commitment to the "peace process", condemned violence and offered an undefined "nuclear-free zone" in the Middle East to appease President Mubarak of Egypt'

s anxiety about Israel's weapons.

There were no Israeli promises to end Jewish settlement expansion and no specific pledge from Mr Arafat to crush Islamic militants in Gaza. Palestinian-Israeli talks are to resume on Monday while Mr Rabin and Mr Arafat agreed to meet at the Erez crossing-point between Gaza and Israel next Thursday.

An autumn date was set for an economic summit in Amman but, more importantly, no date was given for the long-postponed Palestinian elections.

Promises to continue the peace process fell short of the hopes raised by the summit, while the condemnation of "bloodshed, terror and violence" and the four parties' intention to "put an end to all such acts" was not the wholesale PLO promise to eradicate extremists that Israel demanded.

Egyptians close to President Mubarak were close to despair, fearful that the US-backed system of Arab-Israeli peace agreements was close to collapse. The four leaders have reassured each other but have not gained new support among Arabs and Israelis, whofear the peace process may soon prove to be a dead letter.

They made an impressive quartet; the unsmiling Mr Rabin, the jovial monarch, the grinning Mr Arafat and their towering Egyptian host. There was informal talk around the dinner table in the Itihadia Palace. But then they left for their private discussions, four men who seemed unclear what to discuss.

The Egyptians wanted a date for Palestinian elections, which they did not get. The Palestinians wanted an end to Israeli settlement building, which they did not get. The Israelis wanted a declaration against "terrorism", which they got in a watered-down version. Whether Mr Mubarak was able to explain the deadly equation of these respective demands - that the absence of the first two might be provoking "terrorism" - remained a mystery.

There was confusion about who suggested the talks. The Egyptians said it was Mr Mubarak. The Israelis said it was Mr Rabin. There were rumours that the Israeli and Egyptian foreign ministers, Shimon Peres and Amr Moussa, hatched the idea in Davos last month. Mr Peres angered Egypt by extending an "open invitation" to President Assad of Syria. Mr Peres, said Mr Moussa, was trying to "embarrass, not invite" Mr Assad, adding that the invitations had been "addressed to four parties. Period. Fin ished."

President Assad was never going to come to talk to Mr Rabin. The Syrian leader knows a crumbling peace when he sees one and was not going to chat with an Israeli prime ministerwho recently talked of another Israeli-Syrian war. Mr Assad wants a full land-for-peace agreement, with international guarantees, which is what Mr Arafat and King Hussein must now wish they had achieved.

The Egyptians believe the problems are becoming more insurmountable as each side seeks more concessions. Mr Rabin sees no point in freezing further Jewish settlement on Arab land - the Israelis announced further building on occupied Palestinian territoryhours before the summit started. But they insist that Mr Arafat must crush violent Palestinian opposition to Israeli rule. Yet, if Mr Arafat tried to "eradicate terrorism" in Gaza, which the Israeli army could not do in a quarter of a century of occupation, he would have to fight a civil war.

King Hussein wants an end to both settlements and violence, for without that his peace treaty with Israel will become more unpopular in Jordan. President Mubarak, who prided himself that he was an architect of the Palestinian-Israeli peace, knows if the peace process disintegrates, his role as intermediary will evaporate with it.

Mr Moussa read out the ill-defined statement, adding that Israeli, Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers would meet Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, in Washington next week. The four leaders were to have held a joint press conference after their meeting last night. Their failure to do so told its own story.