NEW YORK, Oct. 7 (JTA) – As Israel dealt with the aftermath of a disastrous undercover operation, there were indications that the Israeli- Palestinian peace process may be moving forward. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat may soon meet, Israel Radio reported Tuesday. The meeting would represent an attempt by Israel to bolster Arafat, whose leadership was overshadowed this week by the victorious return to the Gaza Strip of the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin. Israel released Yassin last week from prison as part of a swap for two Mossad agents held by Jordan for the attempted assassination of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Amman. The disclosure of the botched Mossad operation was a blow to Israel’s prestige and gave Hamas – and Yassin – a boost among Palestinians. The incident also hurt Arafat, who was sidelined during the negotiations between Israel and Jordan over the swap, and was thereby denied the glory of winning Yassin’s release from an Israeli jail. Talks between Netanyahu and Arafat would be designed to repair some of that damage. Word that they might soon meet emerged as Israeli and Palestinian officials returned to the bargaining table after a seven-month suspension of negotiations. After a ceremonial meeting Monday night involving Foreign Minister David Levy, Arafat deputy Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross, Israeli and Palestinian committees began Tuesday to discuss issues still unresolved from the 1995 Interim Agreement. The committees were slated to discuss the opening of a seaport and airport in Gaza, a safe-passage route for Palestinians traveling between the West Bank and Gaza, and the release of Palestinian prisoners. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Tuesday that the Palestinians were seeking a “three-month ceiling” for the committees to conclude their work. As part of the deal with Jordan in the wake of the Mossad fiasco, Israel this week set free 20 Palestinian prisoners. Another 50 prisoners may soon be released. Israeli officials, however, were quick to point out that none of those released had Israeli blood on their hands. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Dore Gold, said in a CNN interview Monday that the Palestinians released were guilty of petty crimes and had been near the end of their jail terms. Palestinian officials broke off negotiations with Israel in mid-March after construction began on the Jewish neighborhood of Har Homa in southeastern Jerusalem. The committee sessions were set to resume in early August, but were postponed after two Hamas suicide bombers struck July 30 at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda open-air market. This was followed by a Sept. 4 triple suicide bombing at the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in downtown Jerusalem. Twenty-one Israelis died in the two attacks. Ross, who visited the Middle East this week to serve as mediator for the talks’ resumption, spoke of “putting the whole process back on track” after holding separate meetings Tuesday with Netanyahu and Arafat.
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