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Israel Reaches Out to Touch 10 Arab Lands

March 27, 1992|DANIEL WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Hello, is Yasser Arafat in?

Israel's telephone company inaugurated direct-dial service to 10 Arab countries Thursday, ignoring protests from some Arab governments that they should agree by treaty before such direct links are opened.

The list includes Lebanon and Jordan, both of which border Israel, as well as the oil-producing states of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

Rounding out the list are Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, whose capital, Tunis, is the site of the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization. (It would be illegal to ring up PLO chief Arafat because the law forbids Israelis to have any contact with him or his organization.)

Until Thursday, direct service to an Arab country existed only with Egypt, with which Israel has a peace treaty. For several years, a private company had offered communication to other Arab states through Britain.

The decision to open the direct links was made six months after Bezek, Israel's telephone company that is mostly owned by the state, first requested permission. Bezek argued that it should be allowed to cash in on the demand for the service from Arabs who are citizens of Israel and Palestinians.

Politically, the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has insisted that normalization of relations with Arab countries should not depend on Israel's surrendering the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights, all of which were won in the 1967 Middle East War. The Palestinians want Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza, while Syria wants to recover the Golan Heights.

When the issue first arose, government officials put it in the context of Middle East peace talks. The Communications Ministry, which approved the action, declined Thursday to comment on the political implications.

Bezek was being coy.

"Why not have direct dial?" asked Dani Ezer, the company spokesman. "We can call everyone else. Why not the Arabs?"

Ezer declined to say just what satellites and cables are in use to make the calls.

Presumably, most of the calls will pass through international communications satellites, and protesting Arab countries could not block incoming direct-dial calls from Israel without also short-circuiting their satellite links with other countries.

Israel Radio treated the new connection as a major novelty and tried out a few numbers.

"Hello?" said a reporter calling a hotel in Qatar. "I'm calling from Jerusalem, from Israel Radio. I'm calling because we just inaugurated a line to several Arab states."

"It's OK. It's clear," a man at the other end said.

"Is this a good thing?" asked the reporter cheerily.

"Very, very nice," the man said.

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