Netanyahu Expected to Meet with Arafat Before New Year

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to meet with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat before Rosh Hashanah.

Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and President Ezer Weizman also are planning to meet with the Palestinian leader in the next couple of weeks, a senior source, discussing the premier’s plans, told Israel Television on Sunday.

With Netanyahu scheduled to travel to the United States next month, there was speculation here that a meeting between the Israeli leader and Arafat might be a gesture to the White House of Netanyahu’s intentions to continue the peace process.

Palestinian Authority officials and other Arab leaders have accused Netanyahu of adopting hard-line positions that have virtually frozen the peace process.

Since he formed his government in June, Netanyahu has met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo and Jordan’s King Hussein in Amman.

But he has said he would consider a meeting with Arafat only if it was deemed necessary for national security.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Foreign Minister David Levy held talks recently with Arafat.

Word of Netanyahu’s intention to meet with the Palestinian leader came after the premier met Sunday with Weizman. The two Israeli leaders had discussed a letter Weizman received from Arafat requesting a meeting with him.

Speaking at a news conference afterward, Weizman said he believed that it was his duty to agree to a meeting with the Palestinian Authority head.

“Arafat, whether we like it or not, is the only [elected] Palestinian leader,” Weizman said. “Today he has control over more than 2 million Palestinians.”

“When such a leader, who is my neighbor, asks to see me, I should agree to it,” Weizman added.

Weizman said he and Netanyahu had agreed to exchange ideas about whether a meeting was called for between the prime minister and Arafat, but that no ultimatum had been presented.

“This government was elected to conduct the peace process in the way it sees fit,” Netanyahu told reporters.

Members of his own Likud Party on Sunday called for the prime minister to meet with Arafat.

Knesset member Gideon Ezra, a former deputy head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service, called on the government to have contact with the Palestinian Authority.

He also has called for Israel to ease the closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The closure has not necessarily proven efficient in preventing terror, he said.

But it has created economic hardships that have resulted in opposition to Arafat.

Israel Television quoted security sources as saying that in recent weeks, Arafat’s leadership has encountered problems, and that if Netanyahu wants to move the process forward, he has no choice but to meet with the Palestinian leader.

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