ISRAEL and the Palestinians began the hard work of hammering out details of their historic reconciliation yesterday as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin met Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat for a brief round of talks in the Egyptian capital.
The two men, meeting for the first time since last month's signing ceremony in Washington, stressed the need to speed implementation of the autonomy agreement for Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho by focusing directly on specific issues ranging from water rights and electricity grids to education and security. They announced that two new sets of negotiations would start in Egypt on Oct. 13.
``The meeting was useful and positive, and we hope to transform what we agreed upon on paper easily and smoothly onto the ground,'' Mr. Arafat told reporters after the 90-minute meeting in the Egyptian presidential palace in Cairo.
BUT the atmosphere of conviviality and anticipation that normally surrounds a summit of this magnitude was dissipated by concerns that events offstage may threaten the future of the peace process.
In the weeks following the Sept. 13 signing ceremony, Israelis and Palestinians have traded accusations that the other side was violating the spirit of the Washington signing.
Palestinians were angered by recent roundups of suspected activists by Israeli police in the occupied territories.
Israel complained that the Palestinians were being too slow in selecting a delegation for the next rounds of bilateral talks.
On Oct. 4, 30 Israelis were wounded in a car-bomb attack in the West Bank that Israeli authorities are blaming on a radical Islamic group. Many worry that it was the opening salvo in a campaign to halt the PLO-Israeli rapprochement.
Arafat and Mr. Rabin refused to comment on the recent developments beyond saying that they were ``under discussion.''
Both leaders are also determined not to be seen giving up too much for too little, to avoid angering their domestic audiences.
At the Cairo summit, for example, Arafat and Rabin spoke separately to the press following their meeting - an unusual break with protocol - reportedly at Rabin's request.
Observers familiar with the peace process believe that Rabin would prefer to limit photo opportunities with his former archfoe to a minimum, to avoid inciting Israeli hard liners opposed to the peace plan.
An Israeli official denied that this was the reason for the separate press conferences. ``It was about time to get down to business,'' said Gad Ben-Ari, Rabin's press spokesman. ``This is why we didn't want a ceremonial session. We wanted a working session.''
Both leaders, who were hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, described the talks as ``positive.''
The two new sets of negotiations will begin in Egypt on Oct. 13, the two leaders said. The first, to be held in Cairo, will act as a coordinating body for the other tracks of talks, including ongoing negotiations in Washington and a second set of discussions in the resort town of Taba on the Egyptian-Israeli border.
This second set will deal with logistical matters related to Gaza and Jericho, the participants said.
Arafat also took the occasion to announce that he had appointed Faisal al-Husseini, leader of the Palestinian delegation to the Washington talks, to negotiate on the future status of Arab East Jerusalem.
Both leaders now admit that for all the goodwill generated by the Washington agreement, the real test is yet to come.
``We are committed to whatever we signed,'' Rabin said. ``But it is not enough to sign. You must translate words into action.''