Rabin brandishes an olive branch

YITZHAK RABIN, Israel's new Prime Minister, used his inaugural speech yesterday to seize the initiative in the peace process by challenging Palestinian leaders to meet him in Jerusalem to talk about self-rule. He also offered to go to Amman, Damascus and Beirut 'in the service of peace' and invited Arab leaders to address the Israeli parliament.

President Bush made a congratulatory phone call to Mr Rabin, and said he will dispatch the US Secretary of State, James Baker, to the Middle East next week 'to get the ball rolling again' on peace talks. He invited Mr Rabin to his summer home in Kennebunkport in August.

But Jordanian and Palestinian delegates to the Middle East peace talks gave a cool reception to Mr Rabin's invitation to Arab leaders to go to Jerusalem. 'We will have to wait and see,' said Hanan Ashrawi, spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation. 'Generally, our reaction would be, it looks like a difference in tone from the Likud position . . . Most people collectively are sceptical until we see proof.'

Abdul Salam Majali, head of the Jordanian delegation, said a meeting in Jerusalem 'is only a matter of formalities and would not solve fundamental issues'.

Since the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, Israel has regularly invited Arab leaders to Jerusalem but has never expected that such invitations would be accepted, because no Arab leader took seriously any offer by the outgoing hardline Likud leader, Yitzhak Shamir. Palestinians and other Arab leaders rejected symbolic meetings in Israel, which they feared Mr Shamir would exploit. Also, Arab leaders oppose any separate peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mr Rabin's offer is evidence of determination by the new Labour government to make progress, and is designed to press the Arabs into concessions on where talks can be held. Mr Rabin has set a nine-month target for reaching agreement on limited self-rule for Palestinians in the occupied territories. The next formal round of peace talks is due in Rome but Israel has always said it would like the talks to be in the Middle East. Mr Rabin has hinted that he is ready to soften Israel's refusal to have contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

The prospect for peace dominated Mr Rabin's speech marking the presentation of his government. Tone as much as content demonstrated a break with Mr Shamir's intransigence.

However, the speech also looked ahead to the problem areas which remain in the autonomy talks. Mr Rabin made clear he would not freeze all settlements and would continue to 'enhance and strengthen' Jewish building in the Golan Heights, the Jordan Valley and greater Jerusalem. The Palestinians and the US have demanded a halt to all settlements.

Mr Rabin tried equally to persuade the Palestinians to end their misery by taking the best peace offer they will ever have, and to persuade Israelis that the time had come to end their isolation and to realise the world was no longer against them. To the Palestinians, he said: 'You have failed in your war against us. One hundred years of your bloodshed . . . have brought you only suffering, humiliation, bereavement and pain.' 'You will not get everything you want,' said Mr Rabin. 'Neither will we. So once and for all, take your destiny in your hands. Don't lose this opportunity that may never return. Take our proposal seriously . . . to end the shedding of tears and of blood.'

Seeking to reassure Israelis, Mr Rabin said: 'Walls of enmity have fallen. No longer are we necessarily a people that dwells alone, and no longer is it true that the whole world is against us . . . We must join the international movement towards peace, reconciliation and co-operation that is spreading over the entire globe these days - lest we be the last to remain, all alone, in the station.'

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