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Talks move Israel close to ceasefire

Israel is close to a ceasefire in Lebanon after six days of negotiations by Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, Israeli television reported last night.

The written agreement, the report said, was being finalised in Jerusalem and Damascus.

The terms of the ceasefire - after the 15-day bombardment of south Lebanon by Israel - include an early resumption of peace talks between Syria and Israel, Syria to rein in Hizbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla movement, and the ceasefire to be monitored by a committee consisting of Israel, the United US and Syria.

It is unclear if two of the main points of disagreement have been resolved. These centre on Israel's demand for an end to attacks by Lebanese guerrillas on Israeli troops occupying south Lebanon and Israel's right to retaliate by firing into Lebanese villages. Israeli television said the breakthrough came when Mr Christopherthreatened to abandon his shuttle talks and Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister, said he would escalate the conflict.

Even with a written agreement, the real price paid by Syria, Israel, Lebanon and Hizbollah for a ceasefire may be unclear because of unwritten understandings. In the past Syria has said it supports the right of resistance of Hizbollah in south Lebanon and opposes Israel's right to retaliate against civilian villages. Mr Peres, for his part, needs to show Israeli voters that he has made gains through launching Operation Grapes of Wrath 15 days ago.

Earlier, Israel appeared to be expanding the area it is bombarding with an air strike against a base of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command. This is a Palestinian movement led by Ahmed Jibril which rejects the Oslo accords. The real reason for the attack is probably to increase pressure on Syria since Mr Jibril is a Syrian ally and the base is in part of the Bekaa valley controlled by Syrian troops.

Mr Christopher met with President Assad yesterday in what diplomats say is the culmination of his six-day shuttle between Jerusalem and Damascus. In addition to rejecting Israel's demand for effective immunity from attack for its troops in the occupation zone and the right to fire into Lebanese villages, Mr Assad had earlier turned down an Israeli demand that he take responsibility for restraining Hizbollah.

Israel's public posture is to assert that it can continue its bombardment as long as it wants in the face of intense diplomatic pressure and unfavourable publicity in the international media. A senior Israeli military officer said yesterday that the main message was that "Israel is going to need stamina and patience". He asserted that the ability of Hizbollah to fire Katyusha rockets into northern Israel is being reduced.

In reality the 23,000 shells and 523 air strikes launched by Israel - going by figures from UN officers in the area - have failed to achieve their aim of suppressing Katyusha fire. Since 11 April some 1,000 Katyusha have been fired. The Israeli army said yesterday that it has killed 50 Hizbollah, though the guerrillas say their losses are lower. More certain are the figures for civilian losses with at least 155 Lebanese dead as against three Israeli civilians seriously wounded.

Israeli polls show that so far Mr Peres has gained little through Grapes of Wrath except to alienate Arab-Israeli voters. But the right-wing Likud party is preparing to blame him for grossly mismanaging the campaign, unless he can show that he has improved on the 1993 understanding, brokered by Mr Christopher, with Syria and Hizbollah. .

An ominous development for Mr Peres are the signs that Hamas, the Islamic militant movement, is preparing to send more suicide bombers into Israeli cities. The body of a suicide bomber, who killed himself accidentally, was discovered yesterday on a soccer field in south Jerusalem.

The government found political triumph, however, in the revocation of clauses offensive to Israel by three quarters of the Palestinian National Council meeting in Gaza. It may respond by partly withdrawing from Hebron in the south of the West Bank as early as this week-end.

Mr Peres said the revocation was: "the greatest ideological change of the century", adding he had always said "Arafat could be trusted". He will use the change in the covenant to resume negotiations on the final phase of the Oslo accords on 4 May. He must do this to conciliate Arab- Israelis, without whom he will lose the election, and to show Israeli voters that that the Oslo peace negotiations are alive and well.