US shuttle diplomacy begins to pay off

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Israel is close to a ceasefire in Lebanon after six days of negotiations by Warren Christopher, the United States Secretary of State, Israeli television reported last night. It said that Israel has withdrawn its demand that guerrilla warfare cease against its forces in the south of Lebanon, but it wants to be able to retaliate against Lebanese villages which it believes are being used by guerrillas.

"I must tell you that there are differences that remain and need to be solved," Nicholas Burns, the US State Department spokesman said in Damascus, as Mr Christopher began another session of talks with the Syrian President, Hafez al-Assad. Uri Savir, the director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said in Jerusalem that negotiations were close to an end, but there remained issues on which Israel would not compromise.

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

Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister, who is five weeks away from an election, needs to be able to show that he achieved something by launching Operation Grapes of Wrath. Two main differences emerged during earlier talks: Israel wanted an end to attacks by Hizbollah in the nine-mile wide zone it occupies in southern Lebanon. Second, it wanted the right to fire into villages from which it says Hizbollah guerrillas are operating. The Syrians are said by Israeli officials to have made it clear that "Syria and Lebanon will never be able to accept an agreement which would permit firing at Lebanese villages".

Even with a written agreement, supposing the ceasefire occurs, the real price paid by Syria, Israel, Lebanon and Hizbollah may be unclear because of unwritten understandings. Syria has wanted to make sure that Israel gained no advantages from its latest military incursion. Israel has already paid a heavy political price for its attack by alienating countries which last month attended the Sharm el-Sheikh summit in Egypt to show solidarity with Israel after the suicide bombings in Jerusalem, Ashkelon and Tel Aviv.

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

Mr Christopher met 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 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. A senior Israeli military officer said yesterday Hizbollah's ability 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 United Nations officers - have failed to achieve their aim of suppressing Katyusha fire. Since 11 April some 1,000 Katyushas have been fired. The Israeli army said yesterday 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.

Polls show that Mr Peres has gained little through Grapes of Wrath except to alienate Arab-Israeli voters. The right-wing Likud party is preparing to blame him for gross mismanagement, unless he can show he has improved on the 1993 understanding with Syria and Hizbollah.