Israel's Peres: We Are Discoverers of a New Land

WHEN Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat resume negotiations in Cairo on Monday, the ``agenda will be long and the language delicate.''

``Most of the complicated issues are behind us,'' Mr. Peres said in a breakfast meeting with reporters yesterday, but ``we feel like discoverers of a new land....We are working on an agreement that doesn't have any precedent.''

Peres spoke after a roller-coaster week of mixed signals during which the two leaders said Monday they were on the verge of a deal, after hours of intensive discussions in Davos, Switzerland, but Israeli officials later dampened hopes. Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed a historic accord Sept. 13 that calls for limited Palestinian self-rule in the occupied territories. But talks bogged down and Israel missed a Dec. 13 deadline for the start of troop withdrawal.

Peres said that ``a great deal of mistrust has come onto the negotiation table totally uninvited,'' but that in his two meetings with Mr. Arafat over two weeks they had broken through to understand where the real lines were.

Now they must work through detailed drafts on areas already agreed and on several issues not yet negotiated. The latter, he said, include: the transfer of authority in education, taxation, health, tourism; the size and scope of the Palestinian authority; and the timing and mode of Palestinian elections for a new interim governing authority.

Peres clarified statements quoted in the press earlier this week that Arafat had said the PLO would go for a confederation with Jordan, not a separate state. ``It's true,'' Peres said, ``he [Arafat] said he wanted, for a day, two states and then to unite.'' Several Palestinian factions had reacted with alarm and criticism to the remarks attributed to Arafat.

On negotiations with Syria, Peres seemed to be banking on changing regional conditions and on a growing middle class in Syria to serve as pressures to move President Hafez al-Assad toward an accommodation.

Economic cooperation is central to an accord under discussion with Jordan and to Israel's role in the region. Stability will come, he insists, only with a higher standard of living. ``We are trying to build a regional economy,'' and to do that, we must ``reduce expenses on arms and work to save the region from becoming a huge desert.''

On the tribulations of negotiations that have come out of obscurity after months into the glare of the global media, Peres quoted an Arab saying: ``The camel that carries sugar to Mecca has to eat thorns to help him get there.''

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