Barak rocked by hijack and death of Leah Rabin

Israeli Prime Minister's journey to talks with Bill Clinton is interrupted by suggestions that Islamic militants had seized a jet
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The Independent Online

After twice turning round his aircraft, Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister, was due to meet Bill Clinton last night for talks overshadowed by the death of the widow of his mentor, Yitzhak Rabin.

After twice turning round his aircraft, Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister, was due to meet Bill Clinton last night for talks overshadowed by the death of the widow of his mentor, Yitzhak Rabin.

Leah Rabin died of cancer, aged 72, in Tel Aviv yesterday, just after the fifth anniversary of the assassination of her husband, the prime minister who took Israel into the blighted Oslo peace negotiations.

Mr Barak, who was bound for Washington when the news was announced, said that Israel and millions of others in the world mourned the death of a "courageous, devoted woman who worked with her husband for two generations" to bring Israel into "a secure situation".

But for many in Israel, the loss of Mrs Rabin - who only 10 days ago was pushing the former premier Shimon Peres into making another attempt at a ceasefire - underlined the extent to which the Oslo era is now over and the distance that must still be travelled to achieve peace. She was also a friend of Mr Clinton, who has devoted more time to trying to press through a Middle East peace deal than to any other foreign policy issue.

Her death came on a day when one calamity followed another in quick succession. Mr Barak decided to turn back his aircraft when it was refuelling in Britain after discovering that a Russian plane had been hijacked and had landed at a military base in the Negev desert in Israel.

After initial reports that the hijackers were up to four Chechen guerrillas supporting the Palestinians turned out to be wrong, he issued new orders to the pilots - just short ofIsrael - and continued hisjourney to America. The emergency ended with the surrender of a lone hijacker whose demands were unconnected with the present crisis.

But even before he arrived, Yasser Arafat was telling a conference of Islamic leaders that the Palestinians would carry on with their uprising. Battles continued in the occupied territories after 45 days of unrelenting violence which, if anything, appears to be worsening. There was another fierce gunfight yesterday - unusually, in daylight - on the edge of Jerusalem, in the Jewish settlement of Gilo.

Mr Barak's meeting with Mr Clinton was always doomed to produce little. There was not much scope for discussion about anything beyond the fiendishly difficult task of ending the conflict before it turned even nastier. Mr Barak has been playing down expectations that the talks could produce a return to negotiations any time soon, although no one beyond the most wildly optimistic could ever have believed in such a prospect. An Israeli official said that Mr Barak had "not closed the door" on resumed talks, but that the Palestinians must show that they are acting "in good faith to reduce the violence".

There were signs that Mr Clinton might take Mr Barak to task over Israel's contribution to the same violence - the shooting by its troops of many scores of young rioters, including children. The death toll overall, now at least 206, has risen by more than a dozen over the past three days, including two Israeli soldiers and 11 Palestinians - the latest, a 17-year-old shot dead yesterday in Gaza. But the prospect of a slapped wrist from their closest ally will not unduly worry the Israelis, especially as the President - keen not to deter the Jewish vote before last week's election - have so far been reticent on Israel's tactics.

Reports in the Israeli media said that Mr Barak was expected to push for upgraded bilateral relations with the United States, and to prod President Clinton into organising a promised $800m aid payout, Israel's rewards for withdrawing from south Lebanon and cancelling the sale of anairborne radar system to the Chinese.

The talks last night were expected to focus on trying to breathe life into the ashes of last month's flimsy and unsigned Sharm el-Sheikh understandings, which fell apart almost as soon as they were announced. There was also certain to be discussion about Mr Arafat's demand for a 2,000-strong UN protection force, which he placed before the 15-member UN Security Council on Friday, and will resubmit in the form of a resolution this week. But the Palestinian leader failed to win Mr Clinton's support when they met last week.