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Peres's uncertain fate casts shadow on Palestinian talks

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators yesterday began the long, tortuous process of defining their permanent relationship in the disputed strip of land between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean.

The good news for the Palestinians was that the talks, in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba, began on schedule.

The bad news was that Israel has put off once again the last stage of the "Oslo II" interim agreement, the evacuation of all but a contentious enclave of the West Bank holy city of Hebron, until after the 29 May elections. Hebron is the only major Palestinian population centre which is still under Israeli occupation.

The Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, reiterated at the weekend that Israeli troops would redeploy from areas inhabited by up to 150,000 Hebron Arabs, although they would remain in the centre of Hebron to protect 450 Jewish settlers. But he shrinks from precipitating a conflict with Israel's right- wing extremists before polling day.

The opening of the Taba negotiations was a formality. Here, too, the real bargaining will only start on 30 May, and much then will depend on whether Mr Peres or his hardline Likud rival, Binyamin Netanyahu, emerges as the victor in the polls.

Israel's chief peace negotiator, Uri Savir, celebrated yesterday's meeting as "the light at the end of the tunnel of a 100-year conflict."

The opening of final-status negotiations, he added, was a victory for the Oslo process, which had "met the challenges, the opposition and the violence that tried to kill it".

The two teams have allowed themselves three years to reach agreement on the most difficult issues, which they deliberately left till last: Jerusalem, which both nations claim as their capital; the 3 million Palestinian refugees; Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; the border between Israel and Palestine; security arrangements; and their eventual relationship. Both sides are starting from maximalist positions.

"If talks are conducted intensively," the chief Palestinian negotiator, Mahmoud Abbas, predicted, "we hope to finish in two years or less, but because we are dealing with tough issues, talks might go on for three years." Most observers will be surprised if they do not. Another Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat, stressed that "the purpose of the talks on the permanent solution is to establish an independent Palestinian state."

Mr Peres's Labour party accepts the prospect of a Palestinian state, but the Likud hopes to perpetuate autonomy as the permanent, not just the interim, status of the 2 million West Bank and Gaza Palestinians.

So far, neither Israeli contender is ready to contemplate a division of sovereignty in Jerusalem. The Palestinians say they will settle for nothing less.

On refugees, the Palestinians are demanding a right of return to their native towns and villages for all those who were driven out in the 1948 war.

Israelis of all political complexions oppose any such repatriation, which they argue would turn Israel into a binational state. They would look more sympathetically at compensation, provided it was paid also to Jews forced to leave Arab countries at the same time.

The Palestinians want all 127 Jewish settlements removed. At best, they would let some of the 140,000 settlers stay if they took Palestinian nationality.

Israel hopes to redraw the old "green-line" borders, so that many of the settlements around Jerusalem and in the foothills of Samaria (the northern part of the West Bank) would be annexed to Israel. The Israelis also insist on retaining a security presence in the Jordan valley.

"We know there is a big gap between the sides," acknowledged Saeb Erakat. On that point, at least, all the Israelis and Palestinians can agree.