After weeks of uncertainty, Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced on Tuesday that crucial truce talks would start between his dovish foreign minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat within 24 hours.
Sharon confirmed the much-delayed meeting would go ahead Wednesday in a phone conversation with British counterpart Tony Blair, a Downing Street spokesman said.
Blair was trying to smooth out a diplomatic spat after his foreign secretary, Jack Straw, ruffled Israeli feathers with remarks linking the US terror attacks to the situation in "Palestine."
The right-wing Israeli leader finally bowed to international pressure to allow the talks to go ahead, clearing the way for US efforts to form a worldwide coalition against terrorism that will include key Arab states.
And he told Israeli public radio Tuesday night Israel would take advantage of "every chance, even the smallest, to reach a ceasefire with the Palestinians," while threatening that the Jewish state would react "with all its power" if its citizens are attacked.
Sharon had demanded 48 hours of absolute calm before allowing the meeting. That is a condition that, according to Israeli army statements, will go unfulfilled after the military reported a spate of attacks by Palestinian militants but which caused no injuries.
The latest incident occurred Tuesday night, when Israeli tanks briefly moved into a Palestinian area of the Gaza Strip after a military spokesman said an army patrol had been fired on.
Barring further incidents, it will however be 48 hours since the last fatal attack: a young Israeli woman was shot dead by Palestinian gunmen early Monday, causing Sharon to postpone the talks for a fourth time.
Peres said earlier on Tuesday it was unrealistic to wait for total tranquillity in the volatile region, where more than 800 people have been killed in a year of violence.
"We are in the Middle East. It is a region with a lot of extremists and it is difficult to reach a situation where there is no incident," he told public radio.
"I have noted a clear drop in Palestinian violence," he said, though a senior official close to Sharon warned that another deadly attack would scuttle the talks.
A senior Palestinian official said the meeting would be held "Wednesday morning" at Gaza City's international airport.
Arafat arrived back at Gaza on Tuesday after his first official trip to Syria in five years ended in a fiasco on the runway at Amman's airport.
He had been scheduled to fly in to renew ties with Syria after 20 years of deteriorating relations, strained in particular by Damascus' objection to Arafat's peace accords with Israel in 1993.
But he flew back to Gaza after the trip fell through at the last minute, with both sides blaming the other for the cancellation.
The move did, however, open the door to a swift meeting between Arafat and Peres.
The two are to discuss bolstering the fragile ceasefire declared last week -- the fourth since the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, began almost exactly a year ago.
If they manage to enforce a lasting disengagement on the ground, they can return to the stalled peace process, tackling the thorny issues of Palestinian statehood and the final status of Jerusalem, claimed by both sides as their capital.
The US State Department said it pleased that the meeting was going ahead.
"I would like to say we're very pleased that the Israelis and Palestinians have announced agreement to meet at the level of Foreign Minister Peres and Chairman Arafat," spokesman Richard Boucher said.
"This is an important step which we hope will contribute significantly to reinforcing efforts to halt the violence and build a substantive political dialogue," he said.
The breakthrough came despite disarray in a European push for talks.
Britain's Straw blundered into a diplomatic storm with a statement before a Tehran visit on Monday that the attacks on New York and Washington could have been indirectly linked to the crisis between Israel and the Palestinians.
"I understand that one of the factors which helps breed terrorism is the anger which many people in this region feel at events over the years in Palestine," Straw said.
Following the remark, Sharon and Israeli President Moshe Katsav both cancelled planned meetings with Straw.
Israeli foreign ministry director Avi Gil warned the British embassy the remarks could be interpreted "as blaming Israel and as showing an understanding for terror against Israel."
Sharon later relented after a "personal appeal" from Blair for him to meet Straw, his office said, though Blair denied he had made any apology. Straw was to meet Peres late Tuesday and Sharon the following morning.
French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine also ran afoul of the Israeli authorities when police raided the hotel in occupied east Jerusalem where he was meeting with Palestinian officials, including Arab League spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi.
The police tried to enter the hotel suite where the meeting was underway but withdrew after a scuffle with French security guards and diplomats.
The foreign ministry put it down to a misunderstanding, but one official who asked not to be named accused France of trying to "delegitimise Israel's status" in east Jerusalem.
(china Daily 09/26/2001)