Talking starts, but expectations are low

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The Independent Online

After 18 days of bloody conflict, Israel and the Palestinians will today begin a search for a diplomatic solution. Yet the most to emerge from the summit in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh is likely to be an agreement to take measures to try to stop the violence, with no certainty they will be effective.

After 18 days of bloody conflict, Israel and the Palestinians will today begin a search for a diplomatic solution. Yet the most to emerge from the summit in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh is likely to be an agreement to take measures to try to stop the violence, with no certainty they will be effective.

The position could hardly be worse. Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, is angry and under intense pressure from the right and public opinion. Yasser Arafat is a reluctant participant, aware that some of his people want to continue their new intifada.

The talks - chaired by Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and including President Bill Clinton, UN secretary general Kofi Annan, Jordan's King Abdullah II and a senior European Union representative - could at any time be halted by further violence. "It is going to be very difficult indeed," said a diplomatic source. "But no one has a better plan. What is the alternative?"

Both sides agreed to attend without preconditions, but each will have an agenda. The Palestinians will demand the lifting of the Israeli closure of the occupied territories by opening the airports and allowing the import of food and medicine.

Mr Arafat will also call for a withdrawal of Israeli forces to their positions before the violence started, and for a genuinely international commission of inquiry into the causes of the conflict and Israel's use of force.

Yesterday the Israeli cabinet, sitting as the Ministerial Committee of National Security, released its agenda. Israel wants the rearrest of 60 or so members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad released from Palestinian jails in the past few days.

It also wants Yasser Arafat to end the gunfire by members of the Tanzim militia and Palestinian policemen, who have fired thousands of rounds in exchanges with Israeli troops. Israel wants the Palestinian media to halt what it sees as incitement, and a commitment to preserve Jewish shrines.

There are other agendas, too. Egypt and Jordan will want Mr Arafat to rein in the violencebecause they fear that anti-US and anti-Israeli sentiment in the Arab world could destabilisetheir countries. Mr Clinton will be looking to calm the region down at least until next month's US presidential election is over.

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