Israeli-PLO leaders talk peace Rabin, Arafat meet in Cairo


CAIRO -- Twenty years after war raged hot over this region, the chiefs of Israel, Egypt and the Palestinians met in the cool marble of a presidential palace yesterday to work out the details of peace.

They announced that joint Israeli-Palestinian committees will begin work next Wednesday in Egypt. The groups will hammer out arrangements for Palestinian autonomy and an Israeli withdrawal from areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"It's a very good beginning," Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said after he emerged from the conference at the palace of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak.

But only a beginning. Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, touched on two controversial issues. He announced the appointment of a negotiator for talks on the status of Jerusalem, a status Israelis say is non-negotiable. And he said Palestinians who fled the 1967 Six Day War will be allowed back to the West Bank and Gaza.

Yesterday's closed session was the first such meeting between Mr. Rabin and Mr. Arafat, long sworn enemies. The two shook hands awkwardly in Washington Sept. 13, after witnessing the signing of a historic accord. They exchanged only a few words then.

The persisting grudges showed yesterday. Mr. Rabin resisted shaking Mr. Arafat's hand in front of cameras, and the two men held separate news conferences so as not to appear in public together.

But the humdrum task of announcing meetings is a welcome chore for a region more accustomed to watching the work of armies. Twenty years ago yesterday, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel known as the Yom Kippur War.

Having now turned the course away from conflict, both leaders seemed anxious not to let the process stall in mid-turn. Mr. Rabin said he had requested yesterday's meeting to maintain the momentum of the peace accord.

"We are committed to what we signed. But it is not enough to sign. You have to translate negotiations into reality," he said.

"It was a positive atmosphere . . . a very important meeting," Mr. Arafat said.

The PLO chairman announced the appointment of Faisal al-Husseini, who has been the head of the Palestinian team to the Mideast peace talks in Washington, to oversee negotiations on the status of Jerusalem. He said Israel also had appointed a negotiator.

Mr. Rabin did not mention the subject, and Israeli officials often repeat as a sworn oath that control over all of Jerusalem never will be relinquished.

Jerusalem was a divided city until the Jordanian-ruled eastern portion was captured by Israel in 1967. Israel has officially annexed all of Jerusalem, an act rejected by most countries. Palestinians claim it as part of the West Bank and as their capital.

The agreement signed in Washington includes Jerusalem as a topic of the negotiations on the final status of the occupied territories. Those negotiations are to begin within two years and end within five years, a transition period called for by the agreement.

Also to be discussed in those "permanent status negotiations" are the subject of refugees.

An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians living throughout the Middle East are refugees or offspring of refugees who fled the 1948 or 1967 wars. But no one is certain of their numbers,

Mr. Arafat declared yesterday that the 1967 refugees would be allowed to return during the transition period. He said the status of refugees from the 1948 war would be negotiated.

The Israeli and Palestinian officials agreed to an overall steering committee, to be made up of Israeli ministers and "their equivalent" among the Palestinians, Mr. Rabin said.

It will begin meeting in Cairo.

A second negotiating group will tackle the details of the initial stage of the agreement -- Israel's withdrawal from Jericho and the Gaza Strip starting Dec. 13. That group will meet in Taba, an Egyptian resort facing the Red Sea. Located in the Sinai desert, it is a few hundred yards from the Israeli border.

In addition, the formal peace talks in Washington -- which had been circumvented by the secret talks that led to the agreement -- will continue, tackling long-term issues, the two leaders said. A fourth committee will be formed to negotiate economic issues.

Mr. Rabin said yesterday's meeting touched on subjects such as the economy, taxation, and electric and water utilities in the West Bank and Gaza.

The Israeli prime minister and Mr. Arafat later implied that the Palestinian attacks on Israelis and Israel's arrest and killings of wanted Palestinians were not major items for discussion.

"It was a beneficial meeting. We hope that what we agreed on paper is going to be turned into reality on the ground," said Mr. Arafat.

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