Mid-East talks resume in confident mood

ARAB states resumed Middle East peace talks in Washington yesterday after US diplomacy had helped overcome the obstacle presented by Israel's expulsion of more than 400 Palestinian Muslim militants in December, writes Charles Richards.

It is nearly five months since the sides last met, and all are confident that they are in principle close to sealing agreements. The Jordanians have in effect presented a draft agreement to Israel. The Syrians and the Israelis have accepted the principle that Israel will withdraw from the Golan Heights, while Syria will agree on a formal peace.

How the withdrawal will be monitored, and what form the peace will take in terms of exchange of diplomats and open borders, have yet to be determined. However, the main area of discussion is a timetable. As for Lebanon, it will follow the lead set by the Syrians.

The difficulties mainly concern negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians over the arrangements for autonomy in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip during the transitional phase before the final settlement of territorial status.

More rapid progress in the talks between Israel and its neighbouring Arab states is not, however, likely to lead to separate deals before agreement is reached with the Palestinians. At present, none of the Arab states can be seen to be selling out the Palestinians.

In wooing the Palestinians back to the table, the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, offered a number of assurances, and said the talks might lead to self-government. Mr Christopher also told an Arab-American group last Friday: 'I am determined that we not only seem even-handed but that we actually are even-handed.'

The statement seemed to signal appreciation of the long-voiced Arab complaint that the United States tilts towards Israel.