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Monday, 8 November, 1999, 20:05 GMT
Final status: Toughest phase of talks

Negotiators Yasser Abed Rabbo and Oded Eran: Friendly so far
By Paul Adams in Jerusalem

Staring at each other across the yawning chasm that divides them, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators at least got off to a polite, even a friendly start.

But now, after years of delay, the two sides have finally embarked on the most difficult phase of their protracted negotiations.

Middle East
Everyone knows the coming months will be tortuous, more so perhaps than any period of discussions so far.

The entire process could falter on any one of the "final status" issues now on the table: Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees, water rights and borders.

The two sides have set themselves until next September to reach a final settlement. It is an absurdly ambitious timetable.

Israeli Government ministers have already predicted that a more likely outcome is another series of interim arrangements which leave the most difficult issues (generally acknowledged to be Jerusalem and settlements) to further rounds of negotiations, possibly lasting for years.

Settlements 'causing friction'

Each day brings fresh reminders of how difficult the process will be.

Sunday's triple pipe bomb attack on the coastal city of Netanya served as a grim reminder that men of violence (almost certainly Islamic militants in this case) will do their utmost to disrupt the process.

Meanwhile, Palestinians complain bitterly that the continued growth of Jewish settlements makes a nonsense of the whole process.

On Sunday, Israel's dovish agriculture minister, Haim Oron, warned cabinet colleagues that the expansion of 61 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was "creating dangerous friction."

The government has warned that it is prepared to use force to remove settlers from a handful of isolated West Bank outposts.

However, official deadlines have come and gone and some of the settlers remain defiant.

With thousands of apartments being built elsewhere, Palestinians regard the row over less than a dozen outposts as trivial.
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See also:

07 Nov 99 |  Middle East
Bombs rock Israeli resort
02 Nov 99 |  Middle East
Mid-East talks back on track
06 Nov 98 |  Middle East
Hamas challenges the peace-makers
07 Nov 99 |  Middle East
Barak: Blasts will not stop talks
07 Nov 99 |  Middle East
Barak: More time for settlers
08 Nov 99 |  Middle East
Major hurdles for Mid-East peace
08 Nov 99 |  Middle East
Upbeat start for Mid-East talks
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