Peres, Arafat agree to seek cease-fire

Israel to redeploy troops

Palestinians to cooperate on security

September 27, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - After repeated urgings by the United States, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat met yesterday and agreed to a series of small steps toward ending a year of violence.

The two spoke for 2 1/2 hours at Gaza International Airport after a lukewarm handshake devoid of direct eye contact or smiles. During the meeting, a Palestinian youth was killed and 11 were wounded in a battle about three miles away.

Peres and the Palestinian Authority released a statement promising nothing more specific than "maximum efforts to reach a cease-fire in accordance with the parties' commitments," and said they would meet again in about a week to assess progress. Angry over the clearly audible gunbattle, Arafat refused to appear with Peres at a scheduled news conference. Instead, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat read the brief statement that officials said had been written the night before.

Arafat agreed to resume security cooperation with Israel through meetings that will be mediated by a representative of the CIA, beginning tomorrow. Peres promised that Israel would ease military closings in the West Bank and redeploy troops.

Officials on both sides had expected few results from the session. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was adamantly opposed to the meeting, and Palestinians worried that any offer made by Peres would be immediately vetoed.

"Whatever is offered doesn't meet the bare minimum of what the Palestinians need," said Ziad Abu Amr, a member of the Palestinian parliament. "The Palestinians know that Peres doesn't have a mandate. I am very skeptical."

That the meeting occurred at all was a success for the United States. The Bush administration has viewed Israeli-Palestinian violence as an impediment to persuading Arab states to join an anti-terrorism coalition.

Until the attacks Sept. 11 in New York and Washington, the Bush administration had steered clear of direct involvement in Arab-Israeli talks. But U.S. officials then made a series of telephone calls to urge, then virtually demand, that Peres and Arafat meet.

"We're certainly pleased they met and that they will resume security cooperation," said Paul B. Patin, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Israel. "We're disappointed there was violence. They have their work cut out for them."

Yesterday's meeting was as much about internal politics as peace negotiations. On the Israeli side, the meeting exposed deep divisions between Sharon, a member of the right-wing Likud Party, and Peres, a left-of-center Labor Party member.

Peres pushed for a meeting, believing it the only way to end the violence. Sharon was opposed, believing a meeting would reward Arafat without forcing him to stop the clashes.

Arafat had worried about the Palestinians being considered terrorists by the United States. The Palestinian leader viewed a meeting as a way to prove he was a worthy member of the U.S.-led anti-terrorism coalition.

The first significant test of each side's peaceful intentions could come tomorrow, when Palestinians plan to hold protest marches to mark the anniversary of the uprising. Such gatherings have led to violence in the past.

And any easing of restrictions by Israelis will not come immediately. Security throughout Israel is tight, as officials fear an attack on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which began yesterday evening. The army has imposed a general closure on the West Bank, prohibiting Palestinians from entering Jerusalem until tonight.

A tentative cease-fire that began last week has failed to stop violence for 24 hours at a time. Shortly before yesterday's meeting, three Israeli soldiers were wounded when a bomb exploded in an underground tunnel apparently dug by Palestinians, near an army post in the Gaza Strip.

As Peres sat down with Arafat, Palestinians reportedly stormed the army post, and a battle raged for several hours. The Israeli army said Mahmoud Jalal Kistha, 16, was killed during the fighting.

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