Talks reveal a glimmer of hope on Golan

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The Independent Online
THE Middle East peace talks adjourned yesterday with a virtual stalemate on the setting up of Palestinian self-rule, but some new hope for a deal on the Golan Heights.

Public statements from both sides at the end of the week showed that - whatever negotiators may have achieved - none of the acrimony has yet been defused. At the last Palestinian press briefing before the recess the Palestinian spokeswoman, Hanan Ashrawi, accused the Israeli Prime Minister of 'racism', after remarks on Wednesday in which he said he would like the Gaza Strip - home to 700,000 refugees - to 'sink into the sea'.

The general assessment from the Palestinian side after two weeks in Washington was gloomy.

Dr Haidar Abdel-Shafi, the head of the Palestinian negotiating team, said there had been 'no tangible progress' in the autonomy talks for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Dr Abdel-Shafi said the only encouraging change from previous talks was the sense that the Israeli side were interested in reaching an agreement. But so far there had been no substantial evidence of a change of approach, he said.

In Jerusalem, meanwhile, the Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, yesterday chose to make an upbeat assessment of progress in Washington by focusing on the initiatives produced on the Golan Heights.

'In the 44 years since the founding of Israel there have never been 10 days like these in Syrian- Israeli relations,' said Mr Peres.

'We sat together, we listened to each other. I cannot say that these ten days bought peace, but they bought a chance.'

During the talks Israel offered to discuss withdrawal from part of the Golan Heights, seized during the 1967 war, but Syria continued to insist on total withdrawal.

Mr Peres' enthusiasm appears to be somewhat at odds with the actual outcome of the Israeli-Syrian negotiations so far, and was not matched by the Syrian delegation who conceded only that there had been a change in tone.

However, the Foreign Minister's comments may prove significant as they appear to indicate Israel's real desire to make progress on the Golan question. If a breakthrough can be made on this front - and the next moves will now be decided during the recess by Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister - it may prove easier to make progress on Palestinian autonomy by building confidence on all sides.

The most ominous development in the last few days of the talks was that negotiations became hooked, as of old, on a procedural wrangle with Israel over who should be allowed into the negotiating rooms.

The Palestinian delegation wished to call an expert lawyer to advise them. Israel objected because the lawyer is a resident of East Jerusalem. Israelis refuse to talk to East Jerusalemites on the grounds that to do so would be to concede that the status of Jerusalem is on the table.