Rabin and Arafat to iron out differences: Last-minute effort to maintain timetable for Israeli withdrawal even while hardline settlers threaten war

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The Independent Online
THE CHAIRMAN of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Yasser Arafat, and the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, will meet in Cairo tomorrow to sort out differences which threaten to hold up Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the Jericho area starting on Monday.

This was announced by the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, after meeting Mr Arafat in Tunis yesterday. He said it would be a 'very important meeting in which the parties can reach agreement on subjects that will enable that (implementation) to go forward'.

The two sides are at loggerheads over who will control border points between Jericho and Jordan, and Gaza and Egypt, and the size of the Israeli withdrawal.

In the occupied West Bank, Hanan Ashrawi, who shot to world prominence as the eloquent spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation in Washington, has announced she is giving up her PLO post in America to concentrate on protecting human rights in the new Palestinian entity. Though she has denied the move was a protest against Mr Arafat's style of leadership, her decision will be seen as just that.

Some of the security difficulties which will lie ahead were underlined yesterday when Jewish settlers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank shot dead three Arabs near Hebron. As a sign of the greater determination of the settlers to challenge the Israeli authorities to provide better protection, a man who identified himself by the Jewish name Ronen rang Israel Radio to confirm the shootings were an act of revenge for the killing of two settlers earlier in the week.

The main achievement of Mr Christopher's trip has been to get Syria to rejoin Middle East peace negotiations in Washington. The diplomatic price the US has to pay is an agreement to a summit meeting between President Bill Clinton and President Hafez al-Assad in Geneva in mid-January. At the same time, the US has relaxed its economic sanctions on Syria, imposed for Syria's supposed sponsorship of international terrorism.

Hopes that the resumption of talks between Syria and Israel will lead to a breakthrough should be tempered with caution. Yesterday the state-controlled Syrian-media repeated the line that Syria has consistently held, namely that the US should guarantee Israel's withdrawal from all occupied Arab territory as an essential condition for peace.

The cautious Mr Assad will, however, wait to see how the accord between the Palestinians and the Israelis will be implemented before making any real commitment which will affect Syria's strategic interests.

It is still unclear whether Israel will keep to the timetable on withdrawal and the transfer of authority to the Palestinians.

(Photograph omitted)