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Czech Jewish Leaders Divided over Possible Visit by Arafat

The date has not yet been set, but the mere prospect of a visit here by Palestinian Council President Yasser Arafat has touched off a fiery debate.

Similar visits to other countries have also sparked divisions between those members of the Jewish community with long memories of Arafat’s past and those whose thoughts focus more on the man who shook Yitzhak Rabin’s hand on the White House lawn nearly 2 1/2 years ago.

Here, the Palestinian leader’s anticipated visit has created divisions among Jews and the broader community alike.

When he visits the Czech Republic, Arafat will be greeted by many influential people, but the executive director of the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities said he would not be one of them.

Tomas Kraus said he would refuse to shake Arafat’s hand, but hastened to add that his opinion is not shared by the entire Jewish community.

One of those disagreeing with Kraus was federation spokesman Jiri Danicek, who said he would welcome Arafat “if it would help the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians.”

The issue arose when Czech President Havel extended the invitation to Arafat during the United Nations’ 50th anniversary celebration in October in New York.

Two days after Havel extended the invitation, Interior Minister Jan Ruml appeared on Czech television and described the Palestinian leader as a “symbol of terrorism” and promised to “act against” the visit.

Havel countered by saying that he had invited Arafat because he had, at various times, extended similar invitations to all the major players in the Middle East peace process.

“The policy of the Czech Republic is to support every peace process in the world, and this will remain our country’s policy for as long as I am in office,” he said in a radio broadcast.

In spite of their differences, Kraus and Danicek agreed that Havel’s intentions were good. “Havel has always been a friend of the Jews. He has always wanted to be the person who would play a role in the dialogue” between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Kraus said.

“Havel would like to contact all participating sides and, given the chance, would push” the peace process ahead, Danicek said.

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