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Israeli Official, PLO's Arafat Meet to Promise Future Talks

By Glenn Frankel
The Washington Post

In a small villa near the Gaza Strip military checkpoint that has long been a symbol of the enmity and mistrust between Israelis and Palestinians, Israel's foreign minister met Tuesday with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and said that both sides are committed to advancing the fragile peace process.

David Levy and Arafat emerged from the 90-minute session with smiles and handshakes but no breakthroughs beyond a pledge to hold more talks in the future. But in many ways the meeting itself was a breakthrough. Not only was it the first time that a new right-wing government senior official of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu '76 has met with the Palestinian leader, but it was also the first time that a senior member of the Likud political party had sat down with the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

For years, Likud leaders had denounced any Israeli who met with Arafat, and the party had repeatedly broadcast footage of Labor Party predecessor Shimon Peres's handshakes with the PLO leader during the recent election campaign, which Netanyahu narrowly won. Still, while commentators noted the unprecedented nature of Tuesday's session, the meeting had an air of inevitability as much as of history, and it seemed to constitute another step toward an eventual meeting between Arafat and Netanyahu.

Both Arafat and Levy were effusive after the session. "The meeting was very fruitful and productive and positive," said the Palestinian leader, who in recent weeks had restrained his rhetoric despite his growing impatience with the new prime minister's hard-line statements. Tuesday, Arafat pledged to work "with open hearts side by side in order to support this relationship for the benefit of Israel and the Palestinian people."

"I have no doubt that what we established Tuesday will give a push to the process that is meant to bring peace to Israel and the Palestinians," Levy said.

Back in Jerusalem, however, Netanyahu sounded a much more cautious note. He said the purpose of the Levy-Arafat session was to start talks on fulfilling pledges that both sides made in the Oslo accords establishing Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and large parts of the West Bank. "They have certain requests from us that are dependent on their fulfilling their commitments," Netanyahu told reporters.

Israel has a long list of what it calls "broken promises" made by Arafat and the Palestinian Authority he heads. Chief among these are claims that his administration has failed to extradite accused terrorists to Israel, has not cracked down on Islamic militants and has conducted illegal diplomatic and police activity in East Jerusalem - which both the Israelis and Palestinians claim.

Netanyahu suggested that these issues need to be resolved before Israel resumes negotiations on the final status of Gaza and the West Bank. "I think this is what we can hope to achieve at this point," he said. "I don't think we should go beyond that. Let's achieve this goal and then proceed step by step."