Netanyahu and Arafat sit down together, talk peace Israeli prime minister succumbs to pressure from other leaders

September 05, 1996|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

AMMAN, Jordan -- Breaking the tensions that had been building up between them for nearly three months, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat finally met face to face yesterday, raising hopes that they might revive the stalled Mideast peace process.

But unlike the handshake three years ago between Arafat and then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that electrified the world and sealed the first Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, Netanyahu's grim extension of his hand to Arafat merely brings the parties back to the bargaining table to try to salvage unraveling accords.

Nevertheless, the meeting at the Israeli-Gaza border was widely seen as a historic first step by Israel's right-wing government toward formally accepting Arafat as a negotiating partner -- and getting serious about building a workable peace with the Palestinians.

For the hard-line Netanyahu, who once branded Arafat a terrorist he had no desire to meet, the summit itself was a capitulation, seen by some Likud allies as an ideological betrayal bordering on treason.

For Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization leader who lately has been threatening to rekindle rebellion against Israel, just holding the meeting was a victory.

For the Palestinians, it meant that Netanyahu was acknowledging that the U.S.-sponsored peace process must go on and that Arafat is the only Palestinian leader capable of ensuring this.

"I will not meet with Yasser Arafat," Netanyahu had declared last February. "I don't want to, and I hope I never have to." By April, he had changed his tune and was saying he might do it.

Adapting grudgingly to the responsibilities of being prime minister, Netanyahu tried to put the best face on the turnabout yesterday, insisting: "All we are doing is what we said clearly we will do before and after the elections."

Yesterday's meeting was the culmination of weeks of secret preparations.

The hourlong meeting between the leaders and their delegations, held at the Erez checkpoint on the border between Israel and the Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip, was formal and serious but short on substance.

The two leaders agreed to let their joint steering committees get down to substantive talks starting today.

"Both parties reiterate their commitment to the interim agreement and their determination to carry out its implementation," Netanyahu said later, referring to the 1995 deal signed by the previous Labor-led government and the PLO.

The pact granted Palestinian self-rule in much of the West Bank, but Israel has yet to redeploy its troops from the tense town of Hebron as scheduled.

"However, I'd like to emphasize that we have to take into account the needs and the requirements of both sides on the basis of reciprocity and the assurance of the security and well-being of both Israelis and Palestinians alike," Netanyahu added at a news conference with Arafat standing at his side.

"I would like to emphasize once again our commitment to cooperate with Israel in all aspects in accordance with the agreements signed," asserted a smiling Arafat.

"This cooperation in all fields with Israel will continue irrespective of our political differences. Our commitment, for both parties, is unchangeable."

"I believe that we will work with Mr. Bibi [Netanyahu] and his government to push the peace process, the peace of the brave," Arafat said.

Asked yesterday about Israeli settlements, Netanyahu said the issue was to be part of the "final status" talks on the toughest issues still outstanding, which started in May and are to continue until 1999.

But they have yet to resume since he took office.

On the issue of Hebron, Netanyahu and Arafat said the thorny problem would be left to the negotiating committees.

Analysts said Netanyahu had indicated he would soon implement the planned redeployment of Israeli troops outside most of the city if Arafat agreed to changes in the interim accord to provide more security for the tiny community of 400 Jews living in the city center surrounded by more than 100,000 Palestinians.

Intense pressure from the United States, from moderate Arab nations such as Egypt and Jordan, and even from within his own government forced Netanyahu to give in and meet Arafat in advance of a trip to Washington next week.

Intelligence officials also had warned recently that events in the Palestinian territories were spinning out of control due to a lack of progress on peace and threats of a new intifada, the stone-throwing 1987-1993 Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation.

Pub Date: 9/05/96

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