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`Message of peace will prevail'

Middle East conference: Peres condemns absent Arab nations as Clinton tells bombers their atrocities will achieve nothing

Sharm el-Sheikh

Leaders of 29 countries met in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh yesterday in an effort to prevent the peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians unravelling and to discuss measures against suicide bombers and their supporters.

President Clinton said: "From all over the world we have come to Sinai to deliver one message: peace will prevail." Mr Clinton told a news conference after the four-hour meeting that this "amazing group of people" had provided "a historic showing of the strength of peace in the Middle East today".

The meeting "sent a message that Israel is not alone", saidPresident Clinton. In practical terms the conference will help Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister, to survive politically and may ease the state of siege imposed by Israel on the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza.

But deep differences over the aims of the conference were evident as soon as it started. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who hosted the meeting, emphasised preserving the peace accords, saying: "The core of the Middle East problem is the Palestinians." Egypt is nervous of appearing to be at the beck and call of Washington and Tel Aviv.

Israel and the US wanted the conference to focus primarily on combating terrorism. There were promises of co-operation between security forces and a working group is to meet in 30 days to discuss the implementation of practical measures - such as the exchange of information between intelligence services. A senior US official said: "The Israeli and Palestinian authorities are now working together very closely to uproot terrorism. That is being done on a daily basis for the first time since the bombings."

Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the PLO, needs to see the state of siege of the 2.3 million Palestinians in the occupied territories lifted. But he also wants to resume the relationship he had with the Israeli government before the first bombs in the present campaign exploded on 25 February. "Labour are our partners in peace," said an official of Fatah, Mr Arafat's political movement. The danger for him is that he will be seen by other Palestinians as a pawn of Israel and the US who can deliver nothing for his people.

Mr Peres went out of his way to denounce Iran, saying it had spearheaded attacks. He added: "Tehran has become the capital of terror." Despite these accusations, a senior American official admitted: "Maybe 50 per cent of Hamas funding comes from private sources in the Gulf."

Iran has denied involvement in the suicide bombing campaign. John Major, the Prime Minister, denounced "pariah states" and called for measures to prevent the organisers of attacks shifting from one state to another. Nobody showed interest in criticising Syria which, like Iran, refused to attend the meeting.

From early morning, world leaders and their entourages poured into the Movenpick Hotel, on the beach in Sharm el-Sheikh, at the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula. King Hassan of Morocco, distrustful of local catering arrangements, was accompanied by a long line of retainers in white robes and red fezzes, bringing supplies of water, coffee, tea and food. By contrast John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, arrived with one aide, carrying his own suitcase and with his Egyptian security guards lagging behind.

The site of the conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, between the red mountains of Sinai and the sea, eased the problems of Egyptian security. Even so, policemen were stationed every 50 yards along the road from the airport. Tourists lolling on the beach looked bemused by the influx of soldiers and police, but pleased to be the centre of attention.

Will the conference achieve anything? President Clinton trumpeted what a success it had been "to get this amazing group of people together". Probably international endorsement will help Mr Peres calm Israeli voters, but only if there are no more bombs. None the less, Palestinians will be pleased to hear Mr Clinton say that he expected Israel to ease its isolation of Gaza..

It is difficult to believe that elaborate plans to cut off funds going to Hamas will really prevent new suicide bombers setting off on their missions. And if they do the symbolic success of the conference, briefly reassuring for Israelis and Palestinians alike, will disappear in another explosion on the streets of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.