Truce hopes dashed on 'day of rage'

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The massive diplomatic effort to put together an emergency summit to end the almost open warfare between Israelis and Palestinians was on the brink of failure last night.

The massive diplomatic effort to put together an emergency summit to end the almost open warfare between Israelis and Palestinians was on the brink of failure last night.

On the ground, despite clashes in the West Bank cities of Hebron and Ramallah where two Israeli soldiers were lynched by a Palestinian mob on Thursday, yesterday's proclaimed "day of rage" proved much calmer than its immediate predecessors. There was just one reported death, of a21-year-old Palestinian in Hebron, bringing the total of those killed since 28 September, when the violence began, to 98 - nearly all of them Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. By yesterday evening, however, a real breakthrough was still eluding the summit negotiators, led by Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, and Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, who have spend most of the week scurrying between Jerusalem, Gaza, Amman and Cairo.

In principle both Palestinian and Israeli negotiators sounded ready to meet, but they remained wary, as did their likely hosts, the Egyptians, and the Americans.

Everyone recognises that a repeat of last week's failed meeting in Paris, and its even more futile sequel in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, which Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister, did not even bother to attend, could leave no alternative to total chaos.

"I do think there could be a summit," Mr Annan said, who has led the shuttle diplomacy between Mr Barak and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. But both Egypt and the US indicated the time was not ripe, and Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel's Foreign Minister, told Mr Cook that the peace process "cannot take another fiasco, the problem is to create the conditions for success".

The Palestinians for their part were holding out for a withdrawal of Israeli forces ringing Palestinian cities and communities as a pre-condition for attending a meeting withMr Barak.

As Israel simmered and the mediators laboured, demonstrations took place across the Islamic world, calling for Israel to be punished. In Cairo, the prayer-leader at the Al-Azhar mosque, one of Sunni Islam's holiest shrines, prayed for peace. But hundreds of the faithful gathered in the streets outside afterwards, shouting "Where is the Egyptian army ?"

Long accustomed to guiding Middle Eastern peace-making efforts, America has beenleft stunned and nervous by its powerlessness in the crisis.President Clinton is keen to avoid putting any pressure on Israel that could compromise the White House bid of Vice-President Al Gore, or his wife's campaign for the Jewish vote in her New York senate race.

But Washington is also furious at President Arafat, holding him guilty of perfidy at July's failed Camp David peace talks and of refusing to rein in his countrymen in the recent disturbances. On top of that is a tangible fear that Thursday's suicide bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in Aden heralds a new wave of terror against US targets worldwide. All US embassies and consulates in the region were closed yesterday for three days as a security precaution, while in the US capital, flags on official buildings flew at half-mast in memory of the 17 American sailors now known to have been killed in the attack. In Britain there were similar worries after an explosion early yesterday at the British embassy in the Yemeni capital, Sana'a. Above all though, throughout the West, there were pleas for an end to the fighting and a summit to seal the truce.

In Biarritz, the 15 leaders of the European Union appealed for peace. Europe was "traumatised" by recent events, said President Jacques Chirac of France, which holds the EU presidency. He said the EU would "do everything, and I mean everything"to end the violence and restart peace talks.

A measure of the prevailing anxiety - and the confusion - is the plethora of offers to host any summit. Egypt was clear favourite last night, but Italy, Turkey and Cyprus, have also thrown their hats into the ring.

But as both Israel and the Palestinians spoke cautiously of better times, each seemed to be preparing for the worst. Between sessions with would-be foreign peace-makers, Mr Barak continued negotiations with the Likud Party's hardline leader, Ariel Sharon, to form an emergency government of national unity - a step which would be seen through the Arab world as a deliberate kiss of death to the peace process.

In Palestinian-ruled West Bank and Gaza Strip, dozens of Arab prisoners have been released, including leaders of the military wing of the extremist Hamas group, kindling Israeli fears of more terrorist attacks and suicide bombings.