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Rabin retreats from withdrawal deadline: Disappointment overshadows the PLO leader's symbolic visit to London, where the seeds of his people's plight were sown

THE Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, yesterday warned against expectations of an early resolution of differences that have delayed the implementation of Israel's scheduled withdrawal from the occupied Gaza Strip and Jericho area.

Mr Rabin appeared to back away from Israel's promise to complete the Gaza-Jericho withdrawal by 13 April. 'There are no sacred dates but rather each date is conditioned on reaching an agreement,' Mr Rabin said in a radio interview.

On Sunday in Cairo Mr Rabin had met Yasser Arafat, the Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and they agreed to postpone agreement on Israel's withdrawal. They also agreed to meet again in 10 days to thrash out differences. But yesterday Mr Rabin indicated that chances were slim of a formal signing on 22 December. 'Whoever thinks that in 10 days we can sign an agreement doesn't know what he is talking about,' Mr Rabin told Israeli reporters.

In The Hague yesterday, Mr Arafat said the delay showed there were serious problems with the accord. 'Definitely there are serious problems, otherwise why the delay for 10 days?' Mr Arafat said.

The Israeli cabinet yesterday backed the decision to delay the agreement. Ministers were adamant Israel would not compromise on security issues.

Frustration at the failure to meet the deadline found violent expression in the occupied Gaza Strip. Israeli troops shot two members of the Islamic Jihad, opposed to the peace accord, in separate incidents. A third Palestinian died of wounds sustained last week.

Mr Arafat arrives in London today with his wife Suha for what was meant to be the start of his victory lap celebrating his consecration as Mr Palestine. But now the revelry must wait.

Mr Arafat's visit to London was always going to be redolent with symbolism. His transition from terrorist leader to world statesman, from his United Nations appearance in 1974 to shaking hands on the White House lawn on 13 September, needed another couple of steps. One will be his triumphal entry into his homeland. Another will be this, his first visit to London.

The seeds of his people's distress were first sown here when, in 1917, the foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, made the declaration that led to the creation of the state of Israel and the dispersal of the Arab population of Palestine. Palestinians have consequently always held the British responsible for their plight. So Mr Arafat's visit is in its way an absolution, that the sins of the fathers should not be visited on their children.

Mr Arafat will be treated like a world leader: lunch with Balfour's successor, Douglas Hurd, meetings with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Hume and talks at 10 Downing Street with John Major. But nothing can disguise the disappointment overshadowing the visit. Nor can it cover up his people's growing disenchantment with his authoritarian leadership.

What went wrong is that Mr Arafat's aspirations exceeded what Israel was prepared to offer at this time.

Critics ask whether Mr Rabin might not have made some gesture, such as releasing Palestinian prisoners as a sop to Mr Arafat. After all, the Israelis have to deal with him. He needed some gesture to hold out to his diminishing supporters that the peace accord was going to change their lives. But Mr Rabin is not given to gestures.

Mr Arafat assumed he would be able to demonstrate immediately de facto sovereign control, so showing that a Palestinian state was being created. Israel has never agreed to that.

The Israelis have found in their dealings with Mr Arafat that his interpretation of the accord differs considerably from their own. Yesterday the Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, who met Mr Arafat in Spain last week, was asking why Mr Arafat had introduced elements that had not been agreed during the secret Oslo talks, such as borders at the Dead Sea.

Israel nevertheless has made a strategic decision to disengage from territory it has occupied for the past 26 years. The historic breakthrough is irreversible. Mr Rabin has made up his mind and carries the country with him. And it is Israel as usual that is calling the shots, not the Palestinians.