Middle East water talks deadlocked: Israel rejects Palestinian claim in occupied territories

GENEVA - International talks aimed at boosting water supplies in the Middle East stalled yesterday over a Palestinian request for a neutral mission to study water rights in Israeli-occupied territories.

But diplomats said the United States was heading the search for a compromise to enable the discussions, part of the Arab-Israeli peace process, to be finalised later in the day with an agreed statement on meeting again.

An Israeli delegation member, General Freddy Zach, told reporters his country wanted rights to use water in the West Bank and Gaza to be studied in bilateral talks with the Palestinians, which began in Washington on Tuesday. 'This meeting is to look at ways we can increase the amount of water available in all of our region . . . If we concentrate on the rights question here it will not bring us more water,' he said.

But a senior Palestinian official, Abu Ala, said water rights 'are at the basis of any kind of co-operation between the parties . . . that is why we say this is the first step that must be accepted.'

Israel draws half its water from the springs and rivers in the occupied territories, and Palestinians argue this leaves them only one-tenth of the water supply to which they have a right.

The talks opened on Tuesday as one of five sets of multilateral negotiations set up at the end of 1991, when the troubled peace process got under way. The session was due to finish yesterday with an agreed document. Jointly sponsored by the US and Russia, the talks involve most Arab countries and delegations from many other nations and international organisations that have offered to help in easing the region's water shortage.

Over the first two days, participants said, desalination and similar projects were proposed by several countries, while the World Bank presented the meeting with a study on the overall economic benefits of water preservation.

The Palestinian demand for a neutral international mission of experts to be nominated by the meeting and to visit the occupied territories was presented at the opening session. The delegation chief, Riyad el-Khoudary, said this and other Israeli measures easing Palestinian access to water would enable his people 'to become an active and willing participant in regional co-operation on water resources'.

Gen Zach, co-ordinator for the multilateral peace talks at the Israeli Defence Ministry, said yesterday his delegation could accept a decision for the meeting to send a consultant study mission to the region to look at the whole water issue.

Mr Abu Ala, co-ordinator for the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said he believed a solution could be achieved. 'Since the Americans are full partners in the peace process, we hope they will use their position to push both parties in the peace process to a compromise.'

Leading article, page 21

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