MIDDLE EAST PEACE ACCORD: Will the Palestinians have freedom of movement?

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THE ISRAELIS and the Palestinians have met six times since 1993to sign land-for-peace agreements and by now the accompanying rhetoric sounds stale and self-congratulatory.

Madeleine Albright, the United States Secretary of State, speaking at the latest signing ceremony in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt on Saturday, said the deal marked a new beginning and would be "a rich source of hope for the future". Such hopes have dimmed among Israelis and Palestinians because of the long diplomatic history of the latest agreement. It is a renegotiation of the Wye accord reached in October 1998 between Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and Benjamin Netanyahu, the former Israeli prime minister, which foundered when it became clear that Mr Netanyahu had no intention of implementing it.

The Wye agreement itself was in part a renegotiation of the 1997 Hebron deal, and had its origin in the 410-page document known as Oslo II, signed in 1995. Essentially, it provided for a partial withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank while stipulating strong measures for Israeli security.

Israelis are bored by these marathon negotiations and Palestinians cynical, after so many disappointments, about what they will produce. The Palestinian standard of living has fallen 10 per cent since the first Oslo accord in 1993 because of their reduced freedom of movement.

The Sharm el-Sheikh agreement differs from previous deals less in its provisions than in the likelihood that it will be implemented. Ehud Barak overwhelmingly defeated Mr Netanyahu in the May election. He has a strong majority in the Knesset for reaching an agreement with the Palestinians.

Mr Arafat badly needs some gains to show his people. He may have been forced to climb down over the number of Palestinian security prisoners to be released, but 350 will be freed in the next six weeks. This is very different from last year when Mr Netanyahu humiliated the Palestinian leader by releasing petty criminals and car thieves.

The significance of the impending Israeli withdrawal is more difficult to assess because it is as yet unclear where it will happen. What matters here is less quantity of territory handed over than its effect on Palestinian freedom of movement. A single Israeli checkpoint on a road has the potential to stop people getting to work or doing business, ensuring that the Palestinian enclaves on the West Bank remain just enclaves.

Most important for freedom of movement is the opening of two safe passages between Gaza and the West Bank. The one million Gazans have been largely isolated since 1994. The southern safe passage is to opened by 1 October, but critical security measures have not been decided. Construction of Gaza port is to start on the same day, but again the extent of security is to be decided.

Mr Arafat has promised not to declare a Palestinian state for a year - but this is less significant than it looks because the reality of independence depends entirely on relations with Israel.