Clinton move lifts hopes on Middle East talks

 

Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators last night met President Clinton in Washington, amid rising expectation that their talks might yield a Middle East peace breakthrough.

Back in Israel, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and perennial political loser Mr Shimon Peres was, improbably, contemplating another run for the prime ministership, if the Washington talks failed to achieve an accord.

Though the negotiations were convened under deeply inauspicious circumstances - with violence unabated in the West Bank and Gaza - they appear to have made rapid ground.

The initial idea was for State Department mediators to hold separate sessions with the two delegations, in the hope of eventually bringing them together, and ultimately convening a three-way summit involving Mr Clinton, Israel's Prime Minister, Mr Ehud Barak, and the Palestinian Authority President, Mr Yasser Arafat.

But on the second day of the talks yesterday, the Israelis, led by the Foreign Minister, Mr Shlomo Ben-Ami, and the Palestinians, led by their chief negotiator, Mr Saeb Erekat, were already face-to-face. And President Clinton's personal involvement at so early a stage appeared to indicate a substantive peace effort.

It seems clear that, in addition to trying to stem the violence, the negotiators are also addressing the toughest issues that prevented an Israeli-Palestinian accord at the summer's Camp David summit.

Reports in Israeli media suggest that the Prime Minister, who desperately needs a deal if he is to secure re-election on February 6th, may be ready to relinquish Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount, transfer 95 per cent of the West Bank to Mr Arafat, and "exchange" the remaining five per cent, in areas of Jewish settlement, for a small slice of what is now sovereign Israeli territory.

There was no official Israeli confirmation of such reports last night. And there is no guarantee, if they are true and do pave the way for a deal, that the Israeli electorate would support it.

But they do represent an apparent softening of the Israeli position since Camp David.

It may be, of course, that Mr Barak is deliberately leaking such moderated positions to embarrass Mr Peres into abandoning a plan to compete against him and the right-wing opposition leader, Mr Ariel Sharon, for the prime ministership in February's elections.

Mr Peres has until today to make up his mind, and still needs to persuade the left-wing Meretz party to nominate him, but he told some colleagues yesterday that he would run if Mr Barak were unable to strike a peace deal.

A Peres candidacy seemed unimaginable until this week. He is 77, and is regarded as unelectable, having failed in five previous attempts to win the prime ministership outright (though he has served twice as premier: at the head of a unity government, and after former prime minister Mr Yitzhak Rabin's assassination).

Indeed, earlier this year, Mr Peres even contrived to lose the battle for the ceremonial position of Israeli state president - chosen by the 120 members of the Knesset - to the middle-ranking Likud member, Mr Moshe Katsav.

In Gaza yesterday, four more Palestinians were killed by Israeli troops, including a fireman and a 10-year-old boy.