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Rabin accused of sell-out

Following ambiguous remarks on the eve of the Middle East talks, Israel's Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was accused last night by right-wing critics of plans to give up sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as the Golan Heights and even east Jerusalem.

The attacks followed a television interview in which Mr Rabin went further than he has before to oppose the settlement policies pursued by the previous, Likud government. In particular, Mr Rabin said Israel need not claim sovereignty over areas of religious significance to the Jews, outside Israeli proper.

Such remarks will raise fears among settlers in these areas that they will be abandoned to live under Palestinian control, or forced to dismantle settlements, as part of negotiations.

In the interview Mr Rabin said: 'We have to stop this mistaken day-dreaming of political, and other settlements, and focus instead on qualitative changes in Israeli society.

'The right of access to holy places in our historical past - including Mount Sinai - must be preserved; that does not mean that in every case we have to be the sovereign power there.'

Uzi Landau, a leading Likud MP, said Mr Rabin 'has decided to give up on everything, even before the negotiations have begun'. Such policies, he suggested, would even lead to the return to the Palestinians of Arab east Jerusalem, annexed by Israel.

Since his election Mr Rabin has slowed some Jewish construction in the West Bank and Gaza, especially in what he calls 'political' settlements, where he says there is no security reason for an Israeli presence.

However, until now, Mr Rabin's negotiating position has been that under Palestinian autonomy all existing settlements will remain under Israeli control. By maintaining this stance, and avoiding speculation about precisely how Palestinian autonomy will sit alongside Jewish settlements, he has calmed Jewish fears that the settlements might have to be dismantled, as happened to the settlement of Yamit, when the Sinai was returned to Egypt after the 1979 peace accord.

The reference to yielding sovereignty over 'holy places' will cause a furore among settlers in places such as Hebron, sacred to Jews - as well as Christians and Muslims - as the burial place of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.