Rabin still refuses direct PLO talks: Palestinian peace leaders withdraw threat to resign

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YITZHAK RABIN, the Israeli Prime Minister, reaffirmed his government's refusal to talk directly to the Palestine Liberation Organisation yesterday, following speculation that divisions in the PLO camp might soften Israeli policy.

The split on Sunday between the PLO leadership in Tunis and three of the peace delegation from the Israeli occupied territories was a 'Palestinian problem,' said Mr Rabin. 'It is not our business what is the composition of the Palestinian delegation as long as it is composed of residents of the territories (West Bank and Gaza).'

On Sunday, three of the leading Palestinian peace delegates, Faisal Husseini, Hanan Ashrawi and Saeb Erekat, travelled to Tunis warning that they intended to submit their resignations to Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman, after a row over their role in PLO decision-making.

However, after lengthy meetings in Tunis throughout the day yesterday, the Palestinian peace negotiators apparently withdrew their threat to resign. An adviser to the team in Jerusalem, Azmi Shuaibi, said after talking to PLO officials in Tunis: 'The problem is over. They withdrew their resignation and now they are discussing their role in the team.'

In the Tunis meetings, the delegation is understood to be asking for clearer policy-making procedures during the negotiations and for a greater say in how decisions are taken. As things stand, Mr Arafat himself makes all decisions relating to the peace talks, but because of the Israeli ban on government contacts with the PLO, he delegates a team from the occupied territories to carry out his instructions.

The row centres on a policy document drawn up by Tunis, and discussed with Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, during his Middle East tour last week. Details of the document were made public yesterday, revealing how, behind the scenes of the talks, every word is being fought over.

The peace delegation objected to phrasing in the Tunis document which they felt would allow Israelis to argue that the status of Jerusalem is excluded from discussion during the first stage of the talks aimed at setting up interim autonomy. The document said that during the interim period Palestinians would have control over all the occupied territories including Jerusalem. However, in a separate sentence the document referred to 'the territories' - a phrase which, when used by the Israelis, refers only to the West Bank and Gaza.

The delegation then amended the Tunis document to refer to 'these territories' - thereby unambiguously including Jerusalem. It was the fight over this amendment which brought the row to the surface.

The dispute has obscured the fact that both the Tunis version and the delegation version of the Palestinian proposals appear to contain a major concession. Until now the Palestinian leadership has been insisting that an interim Palestinian authority should have full legislative powers. The new papers propose an 'executive authority' which would assume legislative powers only where agreed with Israel.