Netanyahu, Arafat Exchange Barbs over Stalled Peace Talks

The distance between the public stances of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat appears to be growing daily.

Netanyahu, in an interview appearing in an Arabic language newspaper published Sunday, stated bluntly that he foresees no agreement with the Palestinians over the future of Jerusalem.

“There exists no possibility we will agree with the Palestinian Authority on the final status of Jerusalem, and it appears this is one of the issues which cannot be resolved,” he said.

Arafat, in an interview with Israel Television that was touted as the first given to an Israeli journalist in two years, said he would turn to international arbitration if Israel failed to meet its obligations under the self-rule accords.

“We have the United Nations. We have The Hague. We have the co-sponsors of the peace process,” he said. “We have the U.N. Security Council and the Europeans. We will go to arbitration.”

In language as blunt as Netanyahu’s, he added that eastern Jerusalem “will be the capital of a Palestinian state.”

The United States had guaranteed that the final status talks would include discussions about a Palestinian state and Jerusalem, he said.

But the self-rule accords do not call on Israel to compromise on either issue, and Arafat said he had no secret commitment from any Israeli leader that there would be a compromise.

Arafat also said during the interview that a meeting between him and Netanyahu was inevitable.

“He can’t ignore me,” Arafat said.

Netanyahu has previously said that he would only consider meeting Arafat if it was “deemed necessary for the nation’s security.”

And in an interview with the Arabic newspaper Al Quds this week, Netanyahu again brushed off the idea.

“At present, I have hotter issues,” said the premier.

In a meeting with Arab journalists Monday, Netanyahu said he was close to concluding consultations on the delayed Israel Defense Force redeployment in Hebron, which was supposed to take place in late March.

But he stressed that the move would be carefully thought out before any action was taken.

“If we act precipitously and simply redeploy in Hebron, and if there is an outbreak of terror, it could bounce back and forth like a hot bullet of TNT that could explode our communities,” he said.

Another hot-button issue facing the Israelis and Palestinians, Jewish settlements in the territories, came to the fore earlier this month when the Cabinet agreed to allow construction projects to proceed in existing settlements.

And it again surfaced this week, when Interior Minister Eli Suissa pledged $5 million in aid to Jewish settlements.

Settler leaders have complained that under the previous Labor-led government, settlements received less government money than towns located in Israel.

The aid had reportedly been approved by former Finance Minister Avraham Shochat during the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, but was never distributed.

“I don’t think this is sufficient, but I think it’s a good start,” Suissa, a member of the fervently Orthodox Sephardi Shas Party, said of the aid. “I hope that all government ministers will follow in my footsteps and each will leave behind” the same amount.

Meanwhile, a leader of the fundamentalist Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip vowed violence against Jewish settlements if the Netanyahu government builds news homes in the territories.

“We have to strangle the settlements. We can take to the streets, in demonstrations, to confront the Israeli bulldozers,” Mahmoud Al-Zahar was quoted as saying.

In a separate incident Monday, Israeli authorities demolished what they said were five illegally built homes in Arab villages north of Jerusalem.

The move prompted angry protests by Palestinian residents, who claim that Israel has made it nearly impossible for them to obtain the proper building permits.

One Israeli border police officer was lightly wounded when Palestinians threw stones at bulldozers.

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