Israel and PLO struggle to keep peace deal alive: Deadlock over troop withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho threatens to destroy public support for pact

EFFORTS continued yesterday to break the deadlock over Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho, amid a growing sense on both sides that the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan is in a perilous state.

It was in Norway that the peace accord was forged earlier this year. Now, with awareness on both sides that speed is essential if support for the agreement is not to disintegrate, there is a new effort to summon up the 'Norway Chemistry'.

Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) ended their two days of secret talks in Oslo yesterday and agreed to meet again in the next few days, a Norwegian official said.

The immediate problem is the wide difference between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership over what 'withdrawal' means.

Israel and the PLO were able to sign their much-hailed 'Declaration of Principles' in September only on the basis that definitions of key words were loose. Three months on, their interpretations of 'withdrawal' appear irreconcilable.

For Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the PLO, withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Jericho must be comprehensive enough to meet PLO aspirations for a degree of sovereignty. For Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, withdrawal must be limited enough to ensure Israeli security.

At the disastrous Cairo summit eight days ago, when Mr Rabin and Mr Arafat were forced to delay the withdrawal, Mr Arafat presented a definition of Jericho which was large enough to take in the entire boundary area between the occupied West Bank and Jordan. According to senior Israeli officials, he then argued that withdrawal should mean that Israel remove all security installations and troops from this boundary.

Similarly, Israel should withdraw entirely from the boundary with Egypt at the southern end of the Gaza Strip.

According to the officials, it was Mr Arafat's demands over withdrawal from these lines that dumbfounded Mr Rabin, who had been led to believe that the PLO understood that Israel's presence in these zones would remain. The peace agreement states that Israel shall maintain responsibility for 'external security' after withdrawal.

However, Palestinians say that Israel faces no external threat on the Gaza boundary, as it has made peace with Egypt. On the Jordanian boundary, Israel would retain the right to monitor potential threats under special arrangements.

In addition to control on the boundaries, Mr Arafat insisted on sole Palestinian control at the crossing points - at the Allenby Bridge between the West Bank and Jordan, and at Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. This is also unacceptable to Israel, which fears that thousands of Palestinian refugees will flood across, as well as so-called 'terrorist elements'.

Yesterday, a compromise formula for control at border crossings was put forward by leading Palestinians within the occupied territories, who proposed a 'two-speed' checking system at the Allenby Bridge. Palestinians wishing to travel to the West Bank beyond Jericho, where self-rule is not yet implemented, could go through Israeli as well as Palestinian checks. Palestinians just entering Jericho should only be checked by Palestinian security.

Although the Israeli side is being led by Shimon Peres, the Foreign Minister who spearheaded the peace agreement, the Palestinians are represented by Abed Rabbo, an official who has insufficient authority to take big decisions. He is standing in for Abu Mazen, who until recently was seen as Mr Arafat's second in command, but who has suddenly refused to take part in negotiations after a dispute over Mr Arafat's leadership style.

Disarray in the Palestinian camp is another cause for concern over the ability of the negotiators to make swift progress. Three days ago 120 influential Palestinian figures from inside and outside the occupied territories signed a petition calling on Mr Arafat to exercise his authority more democratically.

HEBRON - Israel yesterday released some of the 197 exiled Palestinians it allowed to return last week from banishment in south Lebanon, Reuter reports. They had been among the 415 exiled Palestinians expelled from the occupied territories a year ago.

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