Israel isolated on Hebron

Israel and the Palestinians could agree on Hebron in 24 hours, but are divided on a further withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank, according to US officials. The previous Israeli government signed an accord promising the stage-by-stage redeployment which has not been implemented.

"They could reach agreement in 24 hours, but it could also take two or three weeks," said Robert Pelletreau, the US Assistant Secretary of State, yesterday in Cairo. "It is a question of how much you are going to tie in Hebron with non-Hebron issues, and that hasn't been resolved."

Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, is concerned that the intense international pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, to implement the present stage of the Oslo agreement will be relaxed if he signs an agreement dealing exclusively with Hebron. He wants autonomous Palestinian areas to be progressively expanded as previously agreed.

The pressure on Israel was evident at the Middle East and North African economic conference which opened in Cairo yesterday with speeches by Warren Christopher, the US secretary of State, and the European Union troika of ministers led by Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister.

The annual regional economic conference, attended this year by 3,500 government officials and businessmen, in the past proclaimed as a sign of Israeli integration into the Middle East, is this year a sign of its isolation. In the months since he took office in June, Mr Netanyahu has presided over a deterioration in Israel's relations with 27 foreign countries says Haim Baram, an Israeli commentator.

President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt emphasised his coolness towards the new Israeli government last month by refusing to attend a summit in Washington, called after the violence in September which left 60 Palestinians and 15 Israelis dead. King Hussein of Jordan, at first conciliatory with Mr Netanyahu, has since visited Jericho with Mr Arafat.

Mr Netanyahu is under closer international scrutiny than his Labour predecessors. Labour started the economically devastating closures of the West Bank and Gaza in 1993 and increased the number of Jewish settlers by 50,000 in four years, but did not have to face the same volume of criticism as the present right-wing Likud government.

Mr Christopher, told the conference that "the peace process has shown great resilience". However, Mr Christopher has failed in repeated efforts to broker a peace treaty with Syria, based on an Israeli-withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians on Hebron resumed last night. At issue in the city is the extent of the Israeli right of hot pursuit, the calibre of weapons to be used by police and the use of one main street.

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