Handshakes and lunch open `a new chapter'

 

The US Secretary of State, Ms Madeleine Albright, yesterday toasted "a new chapter" in Middle East diplomacy, after a successful day of negotiations that saw the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu, shake hands warmly for the cameras with the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mr Yasser Arafat, meet him alone, and even join him for lunch in Palestinian-controlled Gaza.

Critical issues, Ms Albright stressed, still remain to be resolved at the open-ended Washington summit that President Clinton will host from October 15th. But significant progress was made yesterday. And, more importantly, she said, there was "a new spirit" to the discussions, a new sense of urgency and of mutual confidence. The talks, she acknowledged, had turned out to be "much more congenial than I had expected."

Underlining that new spirit was the fact that yesterday's Albright-Arafat-Netanyahu meetings, at the Erez crossing point between Gaza and Israel, lasted for close to four hours, far longer than had been scheduled.

Those extended talks included two sessions at which Mr Netanyahu and Mr Arafat sat alone. And they featured a "working lunch" in Gaza - marking the first occasion that Mr Netanyahu has set foot in Arafat-ruled territory - at which Israeli, US and Palestinian officials sat intermingled around the table, rather than in separate delegations.

Not everything was upbeat, however. A tenatively scheduled three-way press conference did not go ahead. Mr Arafat kept his own counsel after the talks. And Mr Netanyahu was conspicuously less enthusiastic than Ms Albright.

"The main mission, the main work to reach an agreement," he told reporters in Jerusalem, "is still ahead of us in Washington."

Still, even the Israeli Prime Minister appeared more confident that an accord would finally be struck there on an Israeli withdrawal from further West Bank land, noting that, if the Washington summit went smoothly, it might even be possible to begin talks on the final Israeli-Palestinian settlement, the full peace accord.

In concrete terms, it appears that yesterday's meetings saw the finalising of arrangements for opening an industrial park in the Gaza Strip, and for a mechanism to prevent anti-Israeli incitement in the Palestinian media and education system.

Progress was also made in detailing the areas of West Bank land from which Israel is to withdraw; 10 per cent to be turned over to full Palestinian control, and another 3 per cent to be designated as a "nature reserve".

Chief among numerous issues still in dispute, however, is a "security memorandum," detailing both sides' obligations to thwart extremist violence.