Plans for Rabin-arafat Meeting Send Shockwaves Through Israel

The surprise announcement that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin would meet with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat in Cairo on Wednesday has sent shockwaves through the Israeli political establishment.

The scheduled meeting, which was to be hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, would be the first encounter between Rabin and Arafat since their uneasy but historic handshake on the White House lawn last month sealed a preliminary agreement on Palestinian self-rule in the administered territories.

News of the planned meeting caught many by surprise here, because Rabin is widely regarded as suspicious of Arafat and not convinced of the PLO’s readiness to make peace with Israel.

But sources in Tunis, where the PLO head-quarters is located, said the meeting was convened at Israel’s request. Israeli officials, however, declined to confirm this.

According to Oded Ben-Ami, a spokesman for Rabin, the meeting will “smooth the start of negotiations on the implementation” of the agreement signed in Washington.

The face-to-face encounter comes after a week in which Arafat charged the Israeli leader with subverting the peace process.

In two separate letters of protest to the Israeli government during the past week, Arafat charged that recent Israel Defense Force raids on suspected terrorist locations in the Gaza Strip and West Bank have violated the principles of the self-rule agreement.

In response, Rabin has vowed that Israeli forces will continue to target Arab militants bent on undermining the Israeli-PLO agreement. He said that Israel will persist in these actions without coordinating its moves with “anyone.”

The issue of the IDF raids was almost certain to be on the agenda of the Cairo meeting.

While maintaining that the actions are necessary for Israel’s security, Rabin was likely to promise Arafat to release wanted men who were not directly involved with terrorist activities.

MORE DIVISIONS WITHIN LIKUD

Arafat, for his part, was expected to demand that Israel not only put an end to its operations against terrorists, but also that the Israeli government release Sheik Ahmad Yassin, the leader of the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement, who is serving a term of life imprisonment for his involvement in planning terrorist attacks.

The announcement of the meeting triggered angry reactions by Israeli opposition politicians.

Benjamin Netanyahu, chairman of the Likud party, criticized Rabin for giving Arafat the legitimacy of a head of state.

The heads of two other right-wing opposition parties, Rafael Eitan of Tsomet and Rehavam Ze’evi of Moledet, charged that Rabin has lost control of the situation and that Arafat has taken the initiative in the political aftermath of the signing of the self-rule accord.

Within the Likud, there is dissatisfaction over the party’s posture in the weeks since the historic agreement with the PLO was reached.

Hard-liners and moderates are speaking out with increasing vigor on the need for the Likud to offer the public a clear alternative to the government’s position.

The Likud leadership, far from united, is pondering which policy-making forum of the party should be convened in order to thrash out the issues.

Zalman Shoval, a former Likud Knesset member and most recently Israel’s ambassador to Washington, declared this week that he would submit to the Likud central committee a draft resolution stating explicitly that the party will uphold all international agreements entered into by the present government.

Shoval, who now leads the Likud’s international relations department, made the announcement as a way of taking issue with hard-line Likud Knesset member Uzi Landau.

Landau, in public statements made after the Washington handshake, has openly raised the possibility that Rabin’s actions and agreements will not be binding on any future Likud-led government.

Shoval’s statement has aroused particular interest within his party. It is not entirely a soft-line stand, because Shoval links his party’s willingness to abide by the current government’s agreements to the condition that Israel retain its security control over the West Bank forever even though, as Shoval fully expects, a Palestinian state may eventually arise there.

Shoval argues that the Likud ought to recognize and accept the accord with the PLO as a reality — but that the party should convince the Israeli public that a Likud-led government should be entrusted with the task of implementing the accord.

While this position is by no means a mainstream sentiment within the party, it has induced lively debate about the need for a Likud platform that takes account of the new realities in the country and the region.

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