Peace talks deadlock

President Bill Clinton's Middle East troubleshooter, Dennis Ross, held separate, last-minute talks last night with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat, before flying back to Washington.

He had little to show for his four-day mission to revive the peace negotiations, beyond the establishment of a joint panel of Israeli and Palestinian security chiefs, with officials of the CIA sitting in.

That may, however, be enough for the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, to launch a personal rescue initiative as promised at the end of this month.

A jaundiced Israeli official said last night that Mr Ross had only created a framework. "It has to be judged by content and results," he insisted. "Up to now, we haven't seen any concrete steps of the kind we think are vital if there is to be real co-operation against terrorism."

A summit meeting between Mr Netanyahu and King Hussein of Jordan earlier yesterday in the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba was equally unproductive.

The Israeli leader rejected a Jordanian call to ease restrictions on 2 million West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, imposed after the 30 July suicide bombing in a Jerusalem market, which killed 14 Israeli civilians. He said Israel had intelligence information that further attacks were being planned.

Mr Netanyahu also declined to hand over tax revenues, collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, now estimated to be running at about $135m. Mr Arafat has had to raise bank loans to pay police and civil service salaries.

In another flexing of muscles, Israeli bulldozers have this week demolished 10 Palestinian homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, alleged to have been built without permits. Mr Netanyahu reiterated his claim that Israel was not punishing the Palestinian population.

The nearest to an Israeli concession in Aqaba was the Prime Minister's most explicit pledge so far to lift sanctions step-by-step with evidence that the Palestinian Authority was keeping its word and fighting the men of violence.

King Hussein put a brave face on the continuing stalemate, saying he hoped it was a turning point towards achieving a just peace. His listeners could only pray he knew something they didn't.

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