News Analysis: Netanyahu-arafat Meeting Marks Crucial Turning Point

On the face of it, the long-awaited, painfully orchestrated Netanyahu-Arafat meeting that took place this week produced little of substance.

Nevertheless, it would be very wrong — and certainly premature — to write off this meeting as unimportant.

This was a diplomatic encounter of the kind where the fact that it took place at all is much more significant than any specifics that were said.

Both diplomatically and domestically, this meeting may prove in the not too distant future to have been a Rubicon for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – - a line that once crossed, cannot be crossed back.

After talking for just more than an hour, Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority head Yasser Arafat told waiting reporters that the many issues on the agenda between them would be taken up by various joint committees.

There was no specific word about the delayed redeployment of Israeli troops from most of the West Bank town of Hebron. Nor was there any news about prisoner releases or about easing the closure Israel imposed on the territories earlier this year.

“We have to take into account the needs and requirements of both sides on the basis of reciprocity and assurance of the security and well-being of both Israelis and Palestinians alike,” Netanyahu said at a joint news conference after the meeting.

“I want to repeat here once again our commitment to security cooperation with Israel and our commitment to cooperate with Israel in all aspects in accordance with the agreement signed,” Arafat said.

The atmospherics of the much-anticipated event were lean, too.

Wednesday’s meeting at the Erez Crossing, which marks the border between Israel and the autonomous Gaza Strip, involved none of the hugging and hand-holding that characterized the Palestinian leader’s meetings with Shimon Peres when he was foreign minister and then prime minister.

And it was even less warm than the more reserved meetings Arafat had with Yitzhak Rabin.

The most the Likud prime minister could do, it seemed, was to provide the photographers with a perfunctory handshake.

There were few smiles or other gestures between the two leaders.

That Netanyahu, as recently as February, pledged not to meet with Arafat means that — despite his subsequent reversal — something of major political importance transpired this week.

And that Terje Larsen — the Norwegian diplomat who was instrumental in brokering the initial Oslo contacts between the previous Labor government and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993 — was shuttling once again between Arafat and Israel to arrange this latest meeting also reflects its significance.

Now the head of the U.N. mission in Gaza, Larsen helped orchestrate days of marathon sessions between Israeli and Palestinians officials, who worked out the preliminaries for the summit.

He also shuttled between the offices of Netanyahu and Arafat, ultimately securing their agreement to meet.

Larsen announced Wednesday that the joint Israeli-Palestinian steering committee — which oversees implementation of the self-rule accords — would convene Thursday to begin dealing with the issues separating the two sides.

In Washington, President Clinton welcomed Wednesday’s meeting.

“It reflects their continuing commitment to resolving their differences through negotiations and to securing a lasting peace,” the president said.

On the Israeli political front, the fact that key figures in the Likud and its coalition partners were blasting their leader’s “betrayal” at the very moment that the meeting was taking place exemplifies the domestic political complexity of the move that Netanyahu has made.

Science Minister Ze’ev “Benny” Begin, who is opposed to the self-rule accords, said Wednesday that Netanyahu was capitulating to blackmail and was acting in violation of the government’s basic policy guidelines.

Uzi Landau, the Likud chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, accused Netanyahu of abandoning all his campaign promises.

Knesset member Rehavam Ze’evi of the right-wing Moledet Party said Netanyahu had agreed to the meeting so he could “bring something sweet” to talks scheduled with Clinton next week in Washington.

Netanyahu, who had said he would meet Arafat only if he deemed it in the national interest, justified his actions Wednesday night.

“I said that when I feel it is appropriate to meet with Arafat, I will,” he said at a Tel Aviv news conference.

“I know this will be a difficult process,” he added, “but I know where we are going. I have a plan, a compass. Sometimes you have to move a little to the right, to the left, but I know where we are going.”

He announced that Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai would meet Sunday with Arafat to continue discussions.

It is not inconceivable that the storm churned up on the right by Wednesday’s meeting might develop into a real rift and lead to a serious realignment of forces within the Israeli political spectrum.

Many in Likud and in Labor — Labor leader Peres himself is reportedly among them — believe in the likelihood of this scenario unfolding.

Indeed, Peres, who was an architect of the peace accords with the Palestinians, called Wednesday’s meeting “a step in the right direction.”

As the peace process intensifies, as international pressures on Netanyahu mount and as the bitterness within his own party ranks deepens, the chance of a Likud-Labor unity government coming into being again will inevitably look brighter.

Meanwhile, looking for a bright spark in the immediate future, observers pointed to Arafat’s pledge after the meeting that the “security cooperation” between the Palestinian Authority and Israel “will continue irrespective of our political differences.”

The commitment to peace, on both sides, he said, was irrevocable.

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