Israeli blockade lifted to please US envoy


in Jerusalem

Israel yesterday lifted its naval blockade of the southern Lebanese coast as a goodwill gesture to the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, who is visiting the Middle East to try to get peace negotiations resumed. Greeting the end of the blockade, the Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, said: "This is an Israeli habit. They create the problem, so we talk to the Americans, the Americans talk to the Israelis and then they solve the problem."

The lifting of the blockade is the only achievement so far of Mr Christopher's trip. Some Israeli officials said the blockade had been aimed at securing better treatment for 200,000 Lebanese living inside the Israeli security zone when they travel north into government-held territory. Others said it was to stop the flow of arms to the pro-Iranian Hizbollah movement, fighting Israel and its local allies.

Mr Christopher urged the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, in Gaza, to act against people making suicide bomb attacks on Israelis, so that "Gaza cannot be a safe haven". Pledging to co-operate, Mr Arafat added: "I have no magic stick. We are doing all our best."

During the meeting with Mr Arafat, Mr Christopher spoke of his efforts to persuade other governments to fulfil promises to contribute tens of millions of dollars, and outlined new US aid to the Palestinian Authority.

The aid includes 200 surplus trucks and teams from the Pentagon and the Agriculture Department, to give advice on medical, humanitarian and agricultural needs.

Although Mr Christopher praised the agreement reached between the Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, and Mr Arafat, on Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank and Palestinian elections, the announcement of a new date has been greeted with scepticism. Mr Arafat has reportedly said there was no progress. Target dates - in this case 1 July - have been set before and achieved nothing.

In Jerusalem, the Israeli government has set an upbeat mood. "The only, and the main, obstacle to moving ahead with the Palestinians is terrorism," said the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. He predicted Mr Christopher would reopen negotiations between Israel and Syria. The blockade of the Lebanese coast was partly aimed at showing the limits of Syrian power in Lebanon, so its abandonment is a small gesture to Damascus.

Mr Christopher began his tour in Cairo on Wednesday. He will visit Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Jordan, which signed a peace treaty with Israel last year, is anxious to get a schedule of US debt-forgiveness, after Congress made only a small cut in the amount of debt to be written off. The act convinced observers in Syria and Israel that the US will not underwrite a peace deal, as it did with Israel and Egypt at the time of the Camp David agreement.

With elections next year in the US, Mr Christopher's visit is seen as a last chance to get talks started again, particularly at the level of senior military officers. But the Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, may feel Mr Rabin no longer has the political strength to ensure that Israel withdraws from the Golan Heights, captured in 1967.

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