Israelis agree to co-operate with Mitchell inquiry team


Under pressure from President Clinton, Israel has reluctantly agreed to co-operate with an international inquiry, headed by the former Northern Ireland peace mediator, Senator George Mitchell, into the past nine weeks of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in which more than 300 people - including 270 Palestinians and 35 Israelis - have been killed.

The five-member committee, comprising representatives from the US, the EU, Norway and Turkey, has already held preliminary talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials in New York, and is expected to come to the Middle East towards the middle of this month.

The Palestinian leadership had been demanding the urgent deployment of a UN inquiry team from the very start of the confrontation, which erupted at the end of September, and the deployment of UN peacekeeping troops. Israeli pressure led to the constitution of the US dominated Mr Mitchell team, but the Israeli government had been opposing the start of the commission's work until the violence subsided.

At the weekend, however, Mr Clinton urged the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Ehud Barak, in a lengthy telephone conversation, to withdraw his objections to the commission. As a direct consequence yesterday, Mr Barak's key adviser, Mr Gilad Sher, announced in a radio interview that Israel would co-operate with the inquiry "fully and entirely transparently".

Somewhat bizarrely, the commission's precise terms of reference have yet to be agreed, however. Will it begin its probe with the first Friday of the confrontation, on September 29th, when the first Palestinians were killed, or the previous day, when the Israeli opposition leader, Gen Ariel Sharon, infuriated the Arab world with a visit to the Temple Mount, or earlier still?

Mr Clinton's intervention over the commission suggests that the president remains deeply concerned by the collapse of the Middle East peace effort he brokered over the past seven years, and determined to try to salvage something from the wreckage. Indeed, he made an unscheduled appearance at a meeting on Friday between his National Security Adviser, Mr Sandy Berger, and the Israeli Justice Minister, Mr Yossi Beilin, still an outspoken champion of the peace process.

Mr Beilin said yesterday that Mr Clinton made clear his readiness to devote "almost all the time he has left" for foreign affairs to the Middle East. "I still believe there is a 20 per cent, maybe 30, maybe even 40 per cent chance" of reaching an agreement, the minister added.

Mr Beilin's resolute optimism contrasted sharply with yet another day's violence in the West Bank yesterday. In Hebron, a 48-year-old Palestinian man died of a heart attack after a confrontation with Israeli troops manning a position on the roof of his building.

At a roadblock on the edge of Jerusalem, an Israeli soldier was stabbed in the throat by a Palestinian attacker, and was in critical condition in hospital.

Two more Palestinians were killed on Saturday, one an electrician in a building near the Ayosh Junction outside Ramallah, a frequent flashpoint. Israeli troops apparently mistook the drill he was holding for a machine-gun.

AFP reports:

Knesset members are pushing for the abolition of the system of directly electing the Israeli prime minister which many blame for the chaotic and fractured nature of the nation's politics, officials said Sunday.

At least 62 deputies "from various political factions, both right and left, are committed to repealing the law," said a Labour spokesman.