Talks between the PLO and Israel about carrying out the first stage of their peace agreement are due to resume in the second week of January. Since the two sides failed to agree on this first step by the scheduled deadline of 13 December, the atmosphere surrounding the peace talks has grown increasingly tense. Israeli officials have accused PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat of inconsistency, and the Palestinians have said that Israel is employing bullying tactics in negotiations.

The two sides met in Cairo at the end of December, with Israel represented by Foreign Affairs Minister Shimon Peres and the PLO by executive committee member Abu Mazen. At the end of the talks on 29 December, Peres made a statement indicating that substantial agreement had been reached on the key issues of border controls and the size of the Jericho area, to be handed over to the Palestinian authorities. However, the PLO quickly contradicted this.

Israel presented the apparent change in the PLO position as a reflection of Arafat’s personalised leadership style. However, Egyptian Foreign Affairs Minister Amr Moussa on 3 January supported the PLO position, emphasising that the Cairo meeting had produced draft proposals rather than draft agreements. Moussa has also rejected suggestions that Egypt has put undue pressure on the PLO to make concessions to the Israelis.

Israel is reported to have made some concessions, increasing the area of the Jericho district and allowing a degree of Palestinian involvement at border posts. However, the Israelis have continued to insist that the final word on who should be allowed to enter the Palestinian autonomous areas should rest with Israel.

The delay in reaching agreement has put pressure on the PLO leadership, and highlighted the differences between Arafat and his close advisers, as well as between the Tunis-based PLO headquarters and activists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Arafat’s standing has been hit by a series of resignations of officials of his Fatah movement in the occupied territories.

The need to maintain the momentum of the peace process was emphasised by UK Secretary of State for Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs Douglas Hurd during a visit to Gaza on 5 January. He said it was vital that the Israel occupation should be removed and that Palestinians should be allowed to use their talents to create viable communities.