Optimism as Middle East peace talks enter final phase

UNDETERRED BY a bombing on the eve of their meeting, Israelis and Palestinians began face-to-face final peace talks with hopeful rhetoric, while refusing to budge on key issues that have divided them for years.

Both sides gathered in the West Bank town of Ramallah yesterday to try to hammer out the basis of a peace agreement, finally ending a process that has stumbled along since 1993. They were keen to appear confident that they could meet an extremely optimistic time-table in which a final deal is to be signed by September next year. "It is a long road we have to cover in a very short time, but with a joint effort we can make it," said the Israeli chief negotiator, Oded Eran.

His Palestinian counterpart, Yasser Abed Rabbo - a former guerrilla fighter who has frequently been scaldingly critical of the Israelis - agreed, praising the "open and frank atmosphere" of the first 75-minute session, which was largely about setting an agenda.

But there was no escaping the scale of their task. Mr Eran is entering the process armed with four Israeli "red lines" - no return to the pre- 1967 borders, control over most Jewish settlements on the West Bank and all of Jerusalem, and no "foreign army" west of the Jordan river. The Palestinians reiterated their demand for Israeli withdrawal from all territory seized in the 1967 war, citing UN Resolution 242 - which the Israelis argue does not apply to the West Bank or Jerusalem (where the Palestinians want to establish a capital in the city's Arab east). "Withdrawal to the 4 June 1967 borders is an absolute requirement for peace," said Mr Abed Rabbo. "Without it our efforts will amount to no more than the deferral of crisis."

The meeting's schedule was unaltered by Sunday's bombing, which injured 33 people in Netanya, north of Tel Aviv. No group has claimed responsibility, but Israeli police no longer believe the Islamic group, Hamas, was behind it.

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