Mid-East talks hit road-block

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The Independent Online
Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation yesterday failed to agree on an accord to extend Palestinian self-rule after all-night talks between the Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, and the PLO Chairman, Yasser Arafat. Prime areas of disagreement remain control of roads between the Palestinian cities from which Israel has agreed to withdraw troops and the right of its soldiers to return.

"The night was not long enough," Mr Peres said after eight hours of talks, adding later that Israel would make no concessions on issues relating to security. He said Mr Arafat had asked for another meeting shortly. A US official was quoted as saying the Clinton administration wanted the final stages of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to take place in Washington over the next two weeks, with a signing ceremony on 17 July.

Israel has agreed to withdraw from the centres of four cities - Nablus, Jenin, Qalqilya and Tulkarm - but the timing is uncertain. This will be followed by further redeployment from the towns of Ramallah and Bethlehem, to the north and south of Jerusalem. The original target for an Israeli- PLO agreement was 1 July, but early yesterday the two sides did not even produce a joint statement.

A critical issue for the Palestinians is the Israel control of communications around the West Bank cities. They are worried that those like Jenin and Nablus would find themselves cut off from surrounding villages by Israeli roadblocks, crippling local commerce and bringing about a fall in the local standard of living.

"Israel insists on the right to return after redeployment," Faisal Husseini, a senior PLO official, said. "Palestinians reject that and say they can return only in hot pursuit of terrorists."

Once the partial Israeli troop withdrawal has taken place, Palestinians leaders believe it will be very difficult for any future Likud government to reverse the process. At the same time the 120-page draft agreement establishes conflicting jurisdictions on the West Bank and leaves for later negotiations the future of 140,000 Israeli settlers on the West Bank. Other key issues still to be resolved include the right to water and public land outside the Palestinian cities.

After the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem yesterday Israeli ministers denied the talks were in crisis.

"This isn't a crisis now but rather the last part of a climb up a mountain," said the Environment Minister, Yossi Sarid, one of Israel's negotiators. "That part, as you know, is always the steepest.''