Palestine and Israel steer joint course

Two dusty Jeeps, packed with Israeli and Palestinian soldiers, cruised through the West Bank town of Tulkarem yesterday afternoon. They did not attract much attention in sleepy Tulkarem, but in fact they were the first tangible product of the latest effort by the United States to patch up the Middle East peace process. The soldiers were on the first joint Israeli- Palestinian patrol to take place since two suicide bombers killed 13 people in a Jerusalem market two weeks ago, after which Israel immediately broke off its relations with the Palestinian Authority (PA).

US State Department special envoy Dennis Ross arrived in Jerusalem on Saturday night, on a new initiative to revive peace talks. He was supposed to have come two weeks earlier, seeking to break a five-month deadlock in the talks, but his travel plans were scuttled by the bombing.

Mr Ross shuttled between the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat all day on Sunday. His efforts culminated in a midnight meeting in Ramallah, where he met with Mr Arafat; Ami Ayelon, the head of Israeli Internal Security Services; and Amin al-Mindi, head of PA Intelligence Services. Afterwards, a spokesman for Mr Arafat confirmed that the PA had resumed its security co-ordination with Israel.

Demands for security have been the steady Israeli refrain since the bombing. The PA officially suspended all co-operation, such as the joint patrols, after Israel slapped a punishing military closure on the West Bank and Gaza strip in the wake of the attack.

Mr Netanyahu said yesterday that he would be satisfied "only when we know we are getting all the intelligence information that they [the PA] have". In fact, the Israeli defence minister Yitzhak Mordechai said last Friday, before the Ross mission, that there was already a "satisfactory" level of co-ordination. But by stressing the security issue, Mr Netanyahu can win points with an Israeli audience still jittery after the market attack, and ensure that political issues stay off the Ross agenda.

Arriving on Saturday, Mr Ross said he was sent with three objectives: to pave the way for a visit by the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, now slated for late August; to resume security co-operation, and to get both sides back to the negotiating table. By those criteria, he has done remarkably well in just two days, and the overall Israeli reaction to his first day's work has been very positive.

Palestinians, however, are asking what happens if they come back to the table: they are still waiting for the implementation of agreements signed with Israel more than two years ago. Mr Ross reportedly assured Mr Arafat that if the security question could be resolved, Ms Albright would undertake a broader political initiative on her visit.