Netanyahu Meets Arafat, Mubarak at Economic Forum

In a sharp contrast to the usual venues, the Swiss Alps provided the setting this week for the latest discussions about the future of the Middle East peace process.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held separate meetings Sunday with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Davos, Switzerland, where all three were attending the annual World Economic Forum.

Netanyahu told a news conference that he and Arafat had a “very productive meeting,” adding that the two would meet later in the week at the Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip to discuss the next phase of the peace process.

But Arafat, addressing the political and business leaders assembled for the economic conference, lashed out at Israel, which he accused of breaking peace agreements and crippling the Palestinian economy.

He charged that Israel was confiscating Palestinian lands and building Jewish settlements, which he described as “illegal.” He also said continued Jewish closures of the West Bank and Gaza were costing the Palestinian economy $7 million a day.

Netanyahu told reporters that Israel had in fact eased the closures and was seeking to improve the Palestinian economy.

In his remarks before the conference, the premier spoke of Israel as “not just the Silicon Valley of the Middle East, but the Silicon Valley of the whole Eastern Hemisphere.”

“Israel is undergoing an enormous revolution,” he said. “It is one of only three or four countries in the world being rapidly catapulted into a hub of high technology.”

Netanyahu met Sunday morning with a group of leading industrialists, including Microsoft head Bill Gates, to pitch for foreign investment in Israel.

In comments later to reporters, Netanyahu described his meeting with Mubarak as positive, adding that the two had “talked about advancing peace on all fronts and about advancing bilateral relations.”

His meeting with the Egyptian leader, their first in more than six months, came in the wake of a recent chill in Israeli-Egyptian relations. Mubarak had refused to meet with Netanyahu until Israel signed an agreement for turning over most of the West Bank town of Hebron to Palestinian self-rule.

At a news conference Sunday, Mubarak said progress in the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, which were suspended last March, was tied to Israel’s living up to the terms of the Hebron agreement, which was signed last month.

“I believe Syria says it’s ready to start the talks, even if it may have some reservations,” Mubarak said. “But this is a question of time, and it’s bound to be resolved.”

Israeli optimism about a possible renewal of the negotiations with Syria was shaken last week by a roadside explosion in southern Lebanon that killed three Israeli soldiers and wounded a fourth.

In Israel on Sunday, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai called on Syria, which has 40,000 troops stationed in Lebanon and wields significant influence there, to bring an end to the Hezbollah attacks on Israeli soldiers.

“Syria must be no less interested than Israel in advancing the political process,” Mordechai told reporters during a tour of the Karni crossing between Israel and Gaza. “It must use all its influence so that terrorist attacks won’t take place.”

“I don’t know if this is a condition [for renewing talks], but the two things can’t exist together,” he added.

Netanyahu also was planning to travel to Amman this week to meet with Jordan’s King Hussein.

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