New optimism in Mid-East talks

(First Edition)

FOR the first time in weeks, there were signs yesterday on several fronts of progress in the search for a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East, although there were more expressions of hope than marks of concrete achievement.

In Israel, the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, met the visiting Egyptian Foreign Minister, Amr Moussa. Afterwards, when asked about the Palestinian-Israel talks, Mr Rabin told reporters: 'I believe there is an improvement.' However, he warned against excessive hope. 'Allow me to be cautious, not to say that we have succeeded to overcome all the obstacles. They (the Palestine Liberation Organisation) understand that we are determined on the issue of security,' he added.

Much will depend on the outcome of the meeting scheduled between the PLO Chairman, Yasser Arafat, and the Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, in Davos on Sunday. Their principal negotiators - Yoel Singer, the legal counsel to the Israeli Foreign Minister, and Abu Ala for the Palestinian side - are due to meet somewhere in Europe on Thursday to prepare for the Peres-Arafat meeting.

The two sides are hoping to resolve differences that held up Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the Jericho area on 13 December. The main disagreements centre on border security arrangements and the size of the Jericho enclave. Discussions on these issues at the Egyptian resort at Taba have been suspended pending the Peres-Arafat meeting.

The Palestinian-Israeli talks are only one side of the picture. In Washington, talks resumed after a break of several months on the negotiations between Israel on the one hand and the Arab states - Syria, Jordan and Lebanon - separately on the other.

Agreement on the resumption of the Syrian-Israeli talks was announced after the summit in Geneva between President Bill Clinton and President Hafez al-Assad of Syria on 16 January. It was agreed that the heads of the two negotiating teams should meet and continue to meet to resolve differences. Before the meetings, however, the chief Israeli negotiator with the Syrians, Itamar Rabinovitch, said that Syria had yet to define its concept of peace in any agreement.

For his part, Mr Arafat secured something of a political rehabilitation when he was received by King Fahd of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh yesterday for the first time since their rift in 1990 over PLO support for Iraq during the Gulf crisis. Despite Saudi Arabia's current budgetary constraints, the meeting had considerable symbolic value as King Fahd has in the past been the most munificent of PLO paymasters. Mr Arafat flew to Riyadh after performing the umra, or minor pilgrimage, in Mecca.