Ministers call for talks with PLO leaders: There is one hopeful sign in an otherwise tattered peace process

'THEY are beginning to come out of the closet,' was how one US diplomat described the growing public support within the Israeli cabinet for direct talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. It is the dramatic gesture which is needed, they say, to revive the moribund peace process.

At the latest cabinet meeting at least six (some reports say eight) ministers backed the idea of direct Israeli-PLO contacts. Although Israel allows non-governmental contacts with the PLO, official dialogue is still outlawed.

At the peace talks, therefore, Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman, dispatches a negotiating team to Washington, and is then obliged to direct events from off- stage in his Tunis control tower. The team is appointed by him from Palestinian leaders in the occupied territories. But, to please Israel, they are not officially termed 'PLO'.

Frustrated with this communications hazard, some left-wing ministers are starting to promote 'second channel' contacts between Israeli cabinet members and Mr Arafat's top aides, as a forerunner of direct talks. 'After 18 months getting nowhere, they realise it's important to know, first hand, what's on the old man's (Mr Arafat's) mind,' said one commentator.

But do such voices cut any ice, as long as Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, refuses himself to 'come out' and shake Mr Arafat's hand?

Since the Madrid conference which launched the process 18 months ago, the negotiations have never looked so tattered. Mr Rabin is being pressed to tear up the Madrid formula, once thought the best framework for Middle East peace ever devised.

Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, in Cairo for discussions yesterday, tried to put an optimistic view. But the latest round broke up with such gloom there was not even talk of a date to talk again. Far from the much-vaunted 'continuous negotiations', the peace process will consist for the next few weeks of 'hip-hop' shuttling by mediators, starting with the arrival in Israel this week of the US State Department chief, Dennis Ross, come to 'put Humpty Dumpty back together again', as one adviser put it.

The US, which tried to intervene in the last round, has been attacked by both sides, for 'betrayal'. Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, has declared grumpily that the US may pull out altogether.

As debate over negotiation theology spins out, calls for grand new gestures are hardly surprising. Although the talks will probably trudge on - both sides have such an interest in being seen to pursue them - few believe results can be achieved without new impetus.

On the face of it, the logic of direct Israeli-PLO talks is irrefutable. Mr Rabin, who promised autonomy within six to nine months, has now been in office precisely one year with nothing to show for it. His left-wing coalition partner, Meretz, is, for the first time, threatening to leave the coalition unless there is progress soon.

Mr Rabin has blamed a 'lack of Palestinian leadership'. Yet he refuses to talk to the PLO leader. There remain, however, overwhelming reasons why direct talks remain far off. Israel cannot open dialogue unless the US does so first. A US source said yesterday that US-PLO dialogue is 'not likely to happen soon - if at all'.

And, whatever Mr Rabin may want, his main concern is Israeli public opinion. While there are some signs that the Prime Minister may want to begin a rehabilitation of Mr Arafat in Israeli eyes - by allowing him to appear on Israeli television - Mr Rabin is a cautious man, not given to dramatic gestures.

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