Ill-tempered summit delivers peace by a thread and the world is waiting

Peacemaker Clinton wrests accord from angry and distrustful Barak and Arafat in attempt to halt 20 days of violence
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The Independent Online

No one signed anything. There were no grand handshakes. And there was no public timetable for implementing any measures. Peace in the Middle East was last night hanging by the thread of frail agreement cobbled together in the hope that it will end nearly three weeks of conflict, and stop the region sliding into more bloodshed.

No one signed anything. There were no grand handshakes. And there was no public timetable for implementing any measures. Peace in the Middle East was last night hanging by the thread of frail agreement cobbled together in the hope that it will end nearly three weeks of conflict, and stop the region sliding into more bloodshed.

Unable to reach a joint accord at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, Israel's Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat yesterday turned to Bill Clinton to issue a "binding" statement in which the two leaders undertook to take "immediate concrete measures" to end the violence.

They agreed to restore the situation to the status quo of 28 September - the day on which the new Palestinian uprising erupted - and to a package of secret security understandings, to be overseen by the CIA. Israel committed itself to ending the crippling closure of the occupied territories.

But as the participants wearily packed and left the Red Sea resort after more than 20 hours of negotiations, it was clear the summit had been awash with mistrust, and at times erupted into ill-tempered shouting matches.

The agreement faces immediate collapse if another wave of conflict begins. Its only true test, as the Israelis were swift to observe yesterday, will be in its implementation.

Yasser Arafat now faces the enormous task of selling the statement to his own angry and frustrated people, who have suffered almost 100 deaths in under three weeks, who are emotionally swept up in the new intifada - and who are indicating in growing numbers that they do not support yesterday's agreement.

Ehud Barak faces a wary electorate which loathes Mr Arafat and will have faith in the summit only if its result actually produces peace on the streets. Last night it was adopting a "wait and see" posture.

Both sides can make mileage from the other's commitment, outlined in Mr Clinton's statement, to make a publiccall for an end to violence. The Palestinians will see this as a pledge by Israel to stop using its military forces - including snipers, tanks and attack helicopters - against civilians. The Israelis will see it as the fulfilment of their repeated demand that Mr Arafat publicly call on Palestinians to stop violence.

But Mr Barak secured one particularly significant victory at the summit which drew together Mr Clinton, the UN-Secretary General Kofi Annan, the EU's Javier Solana, King Abdullah of Jordan and the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak.

There will be no international commission of inquiry into the causes of the last 20 days of bloodshed. Israel is smarting from a UN resolution condemning its excessive use of force, particularly the killing of civilians by its troops. Israel was convinced a broad-based international inquiry would have been a "kangeroo court" in which it would be damned anew.

Instead, Sharm el-Sheikh produced a cautiously worded commitment by Mr Clinton to "develop" a "fact-finding committee" in "consultation" with Mr Annan. The Americans will be in charge and appoint members.

This will be seen in the occupied territories as a poor result for Mr Arafat, and those who have fought and died in the name of the Palestinian cause in recent days. He capitulated on his original demand for the broad-based international investigation, including Arab members and dignitaries, such as Nelson Mandela.

American control of the fact-finding committee - Mr Clinton said only that its conclusions will be "shared" with Mr Annan before publication - means most Palestinians will have little faith in it.

Mr Arafat did not emerge entirely empty-handed. It was agreed Israel's financially crippling closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip will end, and the Gaza airport (still controlled by Israeli security) will reopen.

Mr Clinton's statement was unclear about exactly when, beyond saying "both sides will act immediately to return the situation to that ... prior to the current crisis". As night fell on the Gaza Strip, the borders were closed. So was the airport.

The Palestinian leader also appears successfully to have fended off an Israeli demand for him to publicly commit himself to the rearrest of 65 Islamic militants recently released from his jails, although some have been detained anew. Nor was there explicit agreement for him to disarm Fatah, or the Tanzim militia of their automatic weapons.

Both are highly sensitive political issues, given the angry public mood in the occupied territories, the ties between his Fatah organisation and Hamas radicals, and Israel's record of reneging on pledges to release Palestinian prisoners.

Ultimately, though, the Sharm el-Sheikh summit produced a collection of fragile stop-gap measures aimed only at ending the immediate bloodshed. It will be seen by many Arabs as a poor return on the scores of lives lost and at least 3,500 injuries.

Palestinians will be hoping for far stronger stuff in Cairo this weekend from the Arab League, many of whose leaders have seen their own populations rally in support of their beleagured Arab brethren.

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