MIDDLE EAST TALKS: Release of 44 prisoners is all that prevents accord

ISRAEL AND the Palestinians stood tantalisingly close to a fresh peace accord yesterday but a final agreement was still stalled by a dispute over the number of Palestinian prisoners to be released.

Early optimism ebbed away as both sides waited for the other to make the concessions necessary for the deal to be signed. "We're still waiting for them to call," said Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians' chief negotiator. "I hope they will call, so we can meet and conclude the only remaining issue, which is the prisoners."

Asked if the ceremonial signing of a new agreement, scheduled to take place in Egypt, was possible, Haim Ramon, the Israeli minister for Jerusalem, said: "Certainly, if the Palestinians pick up the phone."

Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, was in Alexandria yesterday to put his name to a version of the Wye Agreement, signed but not implemented by Israel lastOctober. The Israeli Prime Minister's aircraft was waiting to fly to Egypt, but only if Mr Arafat agreed to his terms.

Israel is offering to release 356 Palestinian prisoners, while the Palestinians want 400 set free. The Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, says he will not free Palestinians who killed Israelis, but has hinted at flexibility over those who were jailed before the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993.

Some 200 members of Mr Arafat's own Fatah organisation are still in prison and his failure to get them freed is bitterly criticised and resented by many Palestinians. Likewise, Mr Barak is vulnerable to claims by the Israeli opposition that he has let the murderers of Jews return to the streets.

The agreement was originally to have been signed in Alexandria yesterday afternoon in the presence of the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, and Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State.

The Israeli media has been referring to the signing as "a festive ceremony", but the form of the festivities has never been clear and there is no reason for the agreement not to be signed over the next few days. The presence or absence of Ms Albright at the signing is unlikely to affect the outcome of the agreement.

If no agreement is reached, then Mr Barak is threatening to implement the original version of the Wye Agreement "to the letter". Mr Ramon said yesterday that in this case only about 100 security prisoners would be set free and agreements reached in the past two months would go back to the drawing board. This would include deals on such issues as safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank and the scale of an Israeli withdrawal.

Under the original Wye Agreement, the Palestinians were to get full or partial control of 40 per cent of the West Bank, but equally important for Palestinians is freedom of movement between the slices of territory ruled by Mr Arafat. Palestinian critics of the Oslo process accuse the Palestinian leader of making concessions to Israel, but only receiving a series of tiny enclaves in return.

Under the modified version of Wye now on the verge of being signed, Mr Arafat has reportedly negotiated continuity between the territories he rules on the West Bank. Even more important will be the "safe passages" linking the one million Palestinians in Gaza and the 1.5 million on the West Bank. Passage will initially be by bus. But the degree of freedom of movement will depend on the stringency of Israeli security measures.

Israeli officials say that Mr Arafat may be delaying the final stage of the negotiations because he wants to draw in the Americans. Mr Barak says he wants to reduce the US role.

The last time an Israeli-Palestinian agreement was signed in Egypt in 1994 - giving the Palestinians control of most of Gaza and all of Jericho - Mr Arafat had to be cajoled into signing the papers during the ceremony itself.

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
A teenager boy wakes up.
life
Life and Style
Researchers have said it could take only two questions to identify a problem with alcohol
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Duncan Campbell's hour-long film 'It for Others'
Turner Prize 2014
Life and Style
food + drink
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hadley in a scene from ‘Soul Boys Of The Western World’
musicSpandau Ballet are back together - on stage and screen
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'
tvCilla review: A poignant ending to mini-series
News
i100
Life and Style
Bearing up: Sebastian Flyte with his teddy Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited
lifePhilippa Perry explains why a third of students take a bear to uni
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Alan Sugar appearing in a shot from Apprentice which was used in a Cassette Boy mashup
artsA judge will rule if pieces are funny enough to be classed as parodies
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

LSA (afterschool club) vacancy in Newport

£40 per day + Travel Scheme : Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job: Our client ...

Trust Accountant - Kent

NEGOTIABLE: Austen Lloyd: TRUST ACCOUNTANT - KENTIf you are a Chartered Accou...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: randstad education are curre...

Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: You must:- Speak English as a first lang...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style