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To Meet or Not to Meet Arafat: That is the Question for Israel

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A split has emerged within the Israeli Cabinet over a proposed summit meeting with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Israeli media reported that a heated argument erupted among Israel’s ministers Sunday over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s refusal to let Foreign Minister Shimon Peres meet with Arafat.

At the meeting, Sharon reiterated his stance that Israel will not negotiate while violence continues.

According to Peres, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, on a diplomatic shuttle mission to the region, proposed the meeting to shore up a fragile cease-fire between the two sides.

Israel Radio quoted Peres as saying at the Cabinet session that he would not accept “dictates” from Sharon.

But the foreign minister sounded a more moderate tone at a news conference about the reported disagreement later in the day.

Sharon is not the only international leader who believes the time is not ripe for a meeting with Arafat.

In a recent meeting with U.S. Jewish leaders at the White House, President Bush said he would not meet with the Palestinian leader until there is a complete end to Palestinian violence.

A group of American Jewish leaders described Bush’s promise during a news conference Sunday in Jerusalem.

“The president himself and others in the administration indicated to us that that is the policy,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Also speaking at the news conference was media and real estate mogul Mortimer Zuckerman, elected last month as chairman of the Presidents Conference.

Zuckerman said Bush appears committed to his campaign pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, despite his recent decision to postpone the move by at least six months.

Zuckerman also reaffirmed the Jewish community’s commitment to solidarity with Israel.

His remarks came in the wake of the U.S. Reform movement’s recent decision to cancel its youth movement summer trips to Israel, and by expected poor attendance at next month’s Maccabiah Games.

Last Friday, Maccabiah organizers announced that next month’s Games will go ahead as scheduled, despite mounting concerns over security. The organizers had been expected to postpone the games for the first time since World War II but reconsidered after the U.S. delegation, the second largest, decided to attend.

In an effort to show solidarity with the Jewish state, Israel and American Jews are cooperating on a new initiative to send one or two members of every synagogue in the United States to Israel in the coming months.

Dubbed “Operation Joshua,” the campaign is the latest effort to show solidarity with Israel. It is being organized by the Israel Government Tourist Office, with the assistance of the Presidents Conference.

In a related development, more than 250 American Jewish organizations signed a full-page ad in last Friday’s New York Times, saying they are “going to Israel this summer.” The ad aims to show solidarity with Israel, which has suffered a huge drop in tourism as a result of the ongoing violence.

Referring to the groups’ promise, Zuckerman said, “We are absolutely committed to this expression of solidarity.”

Meanwhile, there was a marked decline in violence over the weekend.

Just the same, Israel and the Palestinians accused each other of failing to live up to the cease-fire that the United States mediated last week.

Israel said the Palestinians are not arresting terrorists, while the Palestinians called Israel’s easing of restrictive measures in the West Bank and Gaza Strip merely “cosmetic.”

The number and severity of incidents has declined, but violence persisted Sunday.

An Israeli soldier was lightly wounded when Palestinians set off a roadside bomb and opened fire on an army jeep in the West Bank.

In the Gaza Strip, Israeli troops apprehended a Palestinian who set off an explosives-laden donkey cart near the soldiers. The blast caused no Israeli injuries, but killed the donkey.

Later in the day, Palestinian gunmen opened fire on an Israeli army outpost near Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, but did not cause any injuries.

Within Israel proper, Palestinians opened fire on a group of workers working on a highway construction project. Private security guards assigned to protect the workers returned fire. No injuries were reported.

In the West Bank, Palestinians shot up an Israeli car driving near Nablus, but failed to injure the occupants.

Sunday night, an Israeli car carrying Romanian workers was shot as it passed through an Arab area of the Galilee that has seen several terrorist attacks in recent months. No one was injured.

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