Former enemies in need of a chemistry lesson

CAIRO - 'How is the new relationship going after three weeks?' an Israeli official was asked yesterday as Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's Prime Minister, and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), prepared once again to overcome their mutual revulsion and meet each other in the cause of peace. 'There's no chemistry developing between them - none at all,' replied the official. He appeared to be right, writes Sarah Helm.

There was no handshake to seal yesterday's meeting in Cairo. In fact, a diplomatic row broke out when Israel discovered the Egyptian hosts had proposed a joint Arafat-Rabin press conference - a prospect abhorrent to Mr Rabin. And the only joint 'photo opportunity' was of the two leaders sitting po-faced, with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt acting as a buffer between them.

As contacts between the two men inevitably increase - and they will - the question is whether any 'chemistry', any real respect, can develop between such staunch enemies.

Mr Rabin called yesterday's summit because he was disappointed that - despite political change - the character of Mr Arafat and the PLO did not appear to have altered since the new accord. Mr Arafat, say Israelis, is still dealing in 'obfuscation'. He has shown no new ability to delegate responsibility and still appears to be playing his followers off against one another. Because Mr Arafat has never had to deal in matters of real government he has never had to focus his mind on real decisions, say the Israelis.

'They are behaving like the same old PLO we know,' said one official. 'They can't come up with the answers. We have been asking for A and they have been responding with X. We thought we climbed the mountain together but now we find we are up here alone.' Mr Rabin is a man who, having taken a decision, expects swift implementation. He is practical and pragmatic.

Despite the iciness of the new peace, the accord is bound to force the two men to develop some personal understanding. By signing the accord, Mr Rabin has elevated Mr Arafat to the status of 'Chairman Arafat' and he now must treat him as such.

However angry Israel may have been in recent days, therefore, the vitriol has gone out of its public attacks. Instead of criticising Mr Arafat from afar, Mr Rabin called the PLO chairman for a man-to- man chat. The two had what both called 'positive and constructive talks', at the end of which they were polite in their public comments. Mr Rabin avoided the word 'terrorist' despite questions about Palestinian violence. And asked what he had said about a recent Israeli security clampdown, Mr Arafat tactfully remarked he had 'heard what Mr Rabin had to say' and the matter would be discussed further.

For years it was the Palestinians who accused the Israelis of not being 'serious' about peace talks and of causing delays. Suddenly it is the other way round. Both men's political futures depend on achieving this accord - so both must conjure up some chemistry.