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Israeli Foreign Minister and Arafat Hold Talks

Mideast: Likud government agrees to resume peace effort after first high-level meeting with Palestinian leader.

July 24, 1996|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hard-line government held its first high-level meeting with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat on Tuesday and agreed to resume peace negotiations that have been in question since the Likud Party leader's election in May.

Foreign Minister David Levy and Arafat shook hands and smiled warmly for the cameras after their 90-minute meeting at the Erez checkpoint between Israel and the Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip.

The talks appeared to contain more form than substance, but when expectations are as low as they have been, even handshakes and a civil exchange are regarded as success, analysts said.

Levy, considered a moderate in the right-wing government, praised Arafat's openness and readiness to cooperate. "I have no doubt that what we achieved today will give a push to the process that is meant to bring peace to Israel and the Palestinians," he said at a joint news conference.

The meeting was meant to send a conciliatory signal to the Arab world, which feared that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process had reached the end of the road. Likud has disputed Arafat's leadership of the Palestinian people for decades, and party leaders continued to call him a "terrorist" and "murderer" on the eve of the May election.

Netanyahu had launched his campaign for prime minister by opposing the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords and said that he would never meet with Arafat. Although he later reversed himself, many Palestinians and political observers have had their doubts, given Netanyahu's continuing rejection of trading land for peace.

Emerging from the meeting more relaxed than he has seemed in the last two months, Arafat said: "The meeting was very fruitful, constructive and positive, and with open hearts we hope we will continue in the same attitude."

As expected, neither side announced any breakthroughs. Asked when he expected Israel to carry out the long delayed pullback from the West Bank city of Hebron and other aspects of their interim peace accords, Arafat said: "Very soon."

But no date was announced.

Palestinian officials had hoped that the meeting would lead to an Arafat-Netanyahu summit. But in Jerusalem, Netanyahu repeated his position that he will meet with Arafat only if he deems it necessary for the security of Israel.

Each side had prepared a laundry list of the other's alleged violations of the interim peace agreement signed by Arafat and the previous Labor government in September. The Israelis say Arafat's Palestinian Authority is operating illegally in disputed Jerusalem and has failed to fully crack down on Islamic militants. The Palestinians point to the delayed redeployment of Israeli troops in Hebron and Israel's failure to establish a "safe passage" between the Gaza Strip and other Palestinian self-rule areas in the West Bank.

None of this was raised at the friendly news conference. But, in Jerusalem, Netanyahu insisted that a continuation of the peace process depends on Arafat's compliance. "We will not return to a situation in which there are terrorist attacks with a wink from the Palestinian Authority," he warned.

Later, Israeli media reported that in the course of the meeting, Arafat had promised to intensify the fight against terrorism, halt Palestinian Authority activities in East Jerusalem and send Netanyahu a letter reaffirming the Palestine Liberation Organization's annulment of its covenant calling for the destruction of Israel.

The meeting followed a flurry of diplomatic activity. Netanyahu made his first official trip to the Arab world last week, visiting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo to assure him that the Israeli government will honor agreements already signed. Arafat then visited Cairo.

Arafat is scheduled to fly to Damascus, the Syrian capital, on Thursday for a meeting with President Hafez Assad. Israeli political analysts interpret that trip as a warning that if peace negotiations fall apart, a Syrian-Palestinian rapprochement is possible.

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