Peres to visit Cairo for talks with PLO

ISRAEL'S Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, was planning to travel to Cairo this afternoon for talks with the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, according to Israeli officials, but Mr Arafat's aides in Cairo were emphasising that Mr Arafat would not be arriving until tomorrow. PLO officials said that Mr Peres would be meeting a lower- level delegation instead.

The uncertainty until the last minute about who would meet whom, when and where mirrored the tortuous and often troublesome course the negotiations have taken since the historic accord was signed on 13 September.

Mr Arafat had wanted to meet either Mr Peres or the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, to sign the final agreement on the implementation of the first stage of the autonomy deal for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank. After his last meeting with Mr Peres in Davos 10 days ago, Mr Arafat had raised expectations that such an agreement might be finalised at the Cairo meetings.

But the Israelis have stressed that much work needs to be done. Mr Rabin said it could take three or four more weeks. 'The security issues are the more important,' Mr Rabin said last week. 'We will also have to agree on civilian and economic issues.'

That said, Mr Rabin was keen that the Peres-Arafat meeting should 'take place as planned', Mr Rabin's spokesman said after yesterday's cabinet meeting. The aim of the meeting was to 'agree on how to pursue the negotiations with the PLO in order to end them as soon as possible', the spokesman added.

Mr Peres yesterday flew in from the United States, and went into a meeting with the Prime Minister to discuss negotiating strategy. Both men, bitter political rivals for years, have been keen to play down reports of a rift between them on both policy and tactics towards the talks with the Palestinians, which some have suggested is undermining the peace process.

Mr Peres, who has been the bold visionary behind the accord, is due to address the Knesset foreign affairs and defence committee this morning in Jerusalem.

One of Mr Rabin's key supporters in the Labour party, Haim Ramon, tendered his resignation yesterday after Labour party officials blocked his proposed reforms of the health service. In Israel, ministerial resignations have a 48-hour cooling-off period before they can become effective, a period in which the majority find ways of reaching a compromise to avoid surrendering office. Mr Ramon was widely seen as a possible future Labour leader in a party whose leadership is still drawn from men who had all played key roles in the creation of the state of Israel.