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Arens Meets with West Bank Notables

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Defense Minister Moshe Arens made a first visit today to Mayor Elias Freij of Bethlehem and his councillors and ended what in effect has been a three-year boycott by Israeli leaders of Arab mayors in the occupied territories.

Arens was greeted on the steps of the large modern municipal building by Freij, in the second meeting in two days between the two men. They first met yesterday in Aren’ office in Tel Aviv but that meeting was described by Freij as a “getting to know you” event whereas the meeting today was described as “a working visit.”

The meeting between Arens and the Mayor and his councilors here lasted nearly an hour. The topics discussed were mainly local matters — such as grants for rebuilding the local marketing, simplified processing of permits to cross bridges to Jordan and reunification of families and release of prisoners held by Israel for security reasons. Arens promised that most of the demands would be favorably reviewed.

But both Freij and Arens said the meeting was the start of a dialogue which would include political issues. Arens told reporters after the meeting that, “of course,” he could not promise “that on those issues I will not have differences with the Mayor.” He also commented that the meeting was proof “that Arabs and Jews should live peacefully in this part of the country.”

Observers said the visit to Bethlehem could indicate a change in the attitude of Israeli authorities toward West Bank leaders. During the time Ariel Sharon was Defense Minister, there were few Israeli contacts with the urban leadership, with emphasis placed on the rural leadership, particularly in support of the pro-Israel Village Leagues. The new trend at the Defense Ministry is to revive dialogue with the urban leadership, which was flowering when the late Moshe Dayan was Defense Minister.

The observers said one initial result would be an extension of Israeli dialogue with pro-Jordan elements, such as Hikmat al Masri of Nablus, a former speaker of the Jordanian Parliament, who was also received yesterday by Arens.

The weakness of the new Defense Ministry’s policy is that the pro-Jordan Palestinian Arab elements will not move politically without Hussein’s approval. They rejected the Camp David accords, accepted by Israel, and accepted President Reagan’s peace initiative, rejected by Israel.

In addition to meeting separately yesterday with Masri and Freij, Arens also met with Suleiman al Astal, the Mayor of Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip. These meetings were described as the first in a series of contacts with representatives of the territories, contacts frozen since the war in Lebanon. But most observers felt that no immediate political fruits were likely to grow out of the meetings, a point made by Freij who said, after the meetings, “presently, there are no conditions for a political momentum.”

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