Israel and PLO on peace road

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Israel and the Palestinians "have passed the point of no return" in negotiations on peace, the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, said yesterday. Still, he added, they might miss the 1 July deadline for agreement on the redeployment of the Israeli army from the main West Bank towns to enable Palestinian elections to take place.

Mr Rabin spoke at the end of a one-day summit with the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, and the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, to which Israeli officials said he went unwillingly at American prompting. Washington wants to show that a chilly period between Israel and Egypt stemming from Israel's monopoly of nuclear weapons in the area is over.

The Israeli leader said his country and the PLO had agreed a two-phase withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank. Israel wanted to reach an agreement only on the first phase of the redeployment but the PLO wanted agreement on both. In the first phase the Israelis are expected to leave the Palestinian towns of Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarm and Kalkilya.

Earlier this week, Israel suddenly agreed that it will hand over all civilian powers in the West Bank to an elected Palestinian government rather than transfer functions a few at a time. Still to be negotiated is the future of East Jerusalem and the 140,000 Israeli settlers.

This fresh momentum comes because there have been no suicide bomb attacks in Israel since January. The last attack which killed Israelis in the Gaza Strip was two months ago.

Differences remain in that the Palestinians want Israel to withdraw from the villages and roads surrounding each town. Israel wants to look at security after each pull-out, while the Palestinians want a strict timetable.

Palestinian officials say that they do not believe better prospects for successful negotiations between Israel and Syrian will threaten their own talks.

Progress made with Damascus remains a mystery since the main change in recent weeks has been in the agreement to restart negotiations at a senior level and in an improved atmosphere.

Syria, meanwhile, is saying that Mr Christopher's visit to the region offers a real chance of a breakthrough. Mr Christopher is due in Damascus today.