Mid-East talks end on note of hope

THE NINTH round of Middle East peace talks ended in Washington yesterday with no substantive progress but one key procedural change: the engagement of the Americans for the first time as active partners in the negotiations.

The US intervention came too late to yield any advance in matters of substance, however. The chief Palestinian negotiator, Haidar Abdel-Shafi, said after the talks ended: 'I regret to say that we did not reach agreement that permits a declaration about agreed principles.'

He expressed hope, however, that progress could be made in later rounds of talks. He told reporters: 'I want to assure you that we remain committed to the peace process and we hope that this peace process will acquire more credibility that will permit progress in the future.'

The incoming US administration had said that it would, when the time was right, act as a 'full partner' in the peace talks. What this means became apparent on Wednesday with the presentation of the American paper to both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

At least, that was their intention. Indeed the Palestinians had always sought such trilateral meetings. They had been calling on the US to play an active mediating role. In the event, when the US finally did perform this function, the Palestinian delegation, already reduced in size in protest at what it considered lack of Israeli seriousness, did not attend.

In terms of substance, the US paper was not a document just to bridge differences between the two sides on a single issue, but a more wide-ranging compilation of the differences between the proposals presented by Israel and the Palestinians.

The Palestinians objected that the US document was little more than a cooked-up version of the Israeli proposals. Palestinian misgivings about the manner of its drafting were not misplaced. The US had prepared its document in collaboration with the Israelis alone.

But whatever the disagreements about the way it was presented, the problem remains of how to overcome the gap between the Palestinian and Israeli views of what they should be negotiating about.

JERUSALEM - Ezer Weizman, who shaped the Israeli air force and helped forge peace with Egypt, became the Jewish state's seventh president yesterday, Reuter reports.

The 68-year-old former fighter-pilot was sworn into the five-year ceremonial job in Israel's parliament. He succeeded Chaim Herzog, who had been president for a decade. Mr Weizman was elected in March by the 120-member parliament. His uncle, Chaim Weizmann, was the first president at Israel's founding in 1948.