Netanyahu and Arafat to meet again for detailed talks on pact


ISRAELI and Palestinian leaders agreed yesterday after "positive and productive" talks in Switzerland to meet again on Thursday for detailed discussions on extending Palestinian self rule.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu, said the agreement reflected "a great feeling of hope", and he was confident that he and the Palestinian President, Mr Yasser Arafat, could overcome the obstacles to Middle East peace.

The Egyptian President, Mr Hosni Mubarak, also in the Swiss resort of Davos for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, said new peace talks between Israel and Syria were inevitable and could take place at any time.

Mr Mubarak was speaking after his own meeting with Mr Netanyahu, their first for more than six months. The Egyptian President had refused to meet the Israeli leader until he reached agreement with the Palestinians on the West Bank town of Hebron.

Mr Netanyahu and Mr Arafat clinched a Hebron agreement last month, but after an initial period of optimism the Palestinians are again complaining that Israel is dragging its feet on honouring parts of earlier agreements.

Mr Mubarak told a news conference that Mr Arafat had been pessimistic, but after seeing the Israeli Prime Minister his mood had much improved.

"The atmosphere was positive. We have agreed to meet at Erez (on the Gaza Israel border) to discuss these matters which have not yet been implemented," Mr Arafat told reporters.

Palestinian demands include the release of prisoners, a safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank, fewer restrictions on the flow of people and goods between Israel and the Palestinian territories, and Israeli clearance for Gaza airport to open and work to start ton a Gaza seaport.

Mr Netanyahu said: "Chairman Arafat and I have just had a very productive meeting... We are going to meet again to discuss specific implementation steps by Israel and the Palestinians on the agreement that we have reached following Hebron.

"I think this reflects a new attitude, maybe a new beginning. There's certainly a great feeling of hope ... and I'm confident, as a result of today's meetings and for other reasons as well, that we will overcome the obstacles."

On the prospects for talks with Syria frozen for almost a year, Mr Netanyahu said the United States was seeking a formula for negotiations to resume.

"We're discussing the formula ... The Americans are doing this and I hope they'll be successful," he said.

"I cannot force President [Hafez] al Assad to resume the peace talks. If he wants to, we'll find the formula. If he doesn't want to, there can always be 100 reasons given why we cannot start the peace talks," he added.

Mr Mubarak, asked for his views on the chances for Syrian Israeli talks, said: "I believe Syria says it's ready to start the talks, even if it may have some reservations. But this is a question of time and it's bound to be resolved."

At a news conference earlier the Egyptian President linked progress on the Syrian Israeli track to faithful Israeli implementation of its latest agreements with the Palestinians, including last month's deal on Hebron.

Syria has not taken the Hebron agreement as a sign of a change of heart by Mr Netanyahu's right wing government, which took power last June. Damascus says talks must resume where they left off and that Israel had given a private commitment to withdraw from all of the Golan Heights.

Mr Netanyahu defended his government against the Palestinian complaints, saying it had no objection to the Gaza seaport and airport as long as they met Israel's security requirements.

He said the problem with Palestinians who wanted to work in Israel was that other illegal foreign workers had taken their place and it would take time to reverse this trend.

President Mubarak and Mr Netanyahu renewed their commitment to co operate for the sake of a wider Middle East peace.

"I had a very good meeting with President Mubarak. We talked about advancing peace on all fronts ... about advancing our bilateral relations, including in the economic field, and we are committed to doing that," Mr Netanyahu said.

"Egypt and Israel are the cornerstone of peace in the Middle East and we are going to pursue on that foundation peace with everyone," he added.

Mr Mubarak said: "It was a very good meeting, and I hope we can continue like this and enhance the peace process."