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Peres to Meet with Arafat To Try to Broker Ceasefire

By Lee Hockstader
THE WASHINGTON POST -- JERUSALEM -- The Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, declared Tuesday he is prepared to meet with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to discuss ways to end 11 months of violence. Peres accepted the proposal right away, describing it as a “normal event.”

In fact, it was anything but normal. Even as the two signaled their readiness to meet, a bomb exploded in downtown Jerusalem and some of Peres’ colleagues in the Israeli government denounced any talks with Arafat as a concession to terrorism.

The uproar over Peres’ intention to maintain contacts with Arafat reflected a heated debate underway among Israelis. On one side are a minority of relative moderates, led by Peres, who insist that the violence will never end, and may well worsen, unless Israeli and Palestinian leaders negotiate. On the other side are the more numerous Israeli hard-liners, who insist that Palestinians must halt all attacks before any political bargaining can commence.

The argument has intensified in recent weeks along with Palestinian bombings in Israeli cities. In the latest such attack, a small bomb exploded today underneath a car parked on a small street lined with restaurants in the center of Jerusalem. The street is a stone’s throw from a large Israeli police station and jail and a few blocks from a pizzeria where a suicide bomber killed himself and 15 others on Aug. 9.

No one was hurt in Tuesday’s blast, for which a Palestinian group calling itself the Popular Army Front Return Battalion claimed responsibility. But when police arrived they found a larger, unexploded bomb in the same car. It was detonated by Israeli bomb experts in controlled explosions.

Arafat, speaking after talks with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said he is prepared to meet Peres in Berlin “at any moment.” Peres, who was traveling in Budapest, said he intends to see Arafat “in the near future.” But no date was set. And top Israeli officials, many of whom have labeled Arafat a terrorist and pressed for Western governments to shun him, expressed distaste at the idea.

“Peres himself is putting his reputation on the line,” said an aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “Only so many times can you have a meeting that ends with a handshake and then it’s followed right away by another terror attack.”

Sharon, who has met Arafat only once, three years ago, and refused to shake his hand, has been adamant that Israel should not agree to political concessions while the fighting continues. But the Israeli leader has bought himself a large measure of political peace by his alliance government with Peres’ Labor Party. So he has also made clear that he will not forbid Peres from seeking meetings with Arafat -- as long as the talks stick to arrangements for a cease-fire and easing Palestinian living conditions.

“Most of us ... really believe Yasser Arafat is leading a strategy of terror, and we’ve tried to convince the entire world to boycott Arafat,” said Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin, a close ally of Sharon’s. “On the other hand the prime minister believes that continuing the unity government brings him to believe he should let Peres do whatever he wants.”

What Sharon does not want discussed is anything to do with Jewish settlements.