Pressure on Barak over land for peace

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EHUD BARAK, the Israeli Prime Minister, begins his first move to revive the moribund Middle East peace talks today at a meeting with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.

Mr Barak is believed to be prepared to implement the land-for-security Wye accord with the Palestinians, agreed but not implemented last year by former Israeli leader, Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli Prime Minister would prefer to delay or modify the agreement, originally drawn up by Mr Netanyahu. But President Mubarak and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, whom Mr Barak meets on Sunday, will insist that the full implementation of Wye.

In the talks in Alexandria, President Mubarak is expected to ask Mr Barak to stop the expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. The Israeli leader, will seek the early release of Azzam Azzam, an Israeli jailed by the Egyptians for espionage.

Yossi Beilin, Israeli Justice Minister, said yesterday that peace negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians could be concluded quickly:"We are talking about one or two years and I don't think we need more than that." Mr Beilin added: "The Syrians have said that 70-80 per cent of the problem had been solved and, if that is the case, then I think we don't need much time for that."

After seeing King Abdullah of Jordan in Europe, Mr Barak moves on to meet President Bill Clinton in the United States next Thursday, who will also press him to implement the Wye accord which he brokered. The new Israeli Prime Minister is guaranteed a warm welcome by Mr Clinton, whose relations with Mr Netanyahu were poor.

The Israeli army says immediate implementation of Wye would involve a withdrawal from 13.1 per cent of the West Bank.The army regards this as militarily feasible. This would expand the Palestinian zone of control, extending it around Ramallah and Hebron, north and south of Jerusalem.

But an Israeli pull-back from the original Wye agreement would create political problems for Mr Barak, since four of the parties which make up his seven-party coalition previously belonged to Mr Netanyahu's government. They will resist the removal of 42 hilltop settlements - often consisting of tents or trailers - set up by settlers on the West Bank in the last year.

Mr Barak is understood to be moderating policy towards Iran, Israel's principal enemy since 1993 . A senior diplomatic source said Israel today regards Iran as a "threat but not as an enemy."