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News Analysis: Israeli Leaders’ Talks with Arabs Revive Optimism About Peace

July 24, 1996
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In the always unpredictable Middle East, the opening round of discussions between the new government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s Arab neighbors has created a fresh series of surprises.

Days after Netanyahu won Israel’s May 29 general elections, a veritable cry went out in the Arab world, replete with warnings to the new prime minister of the dire consequences of failing to follow the peace process pursued by the previous, Labor-led government.

Palestinian voices warned of a new intifada, more violent than the 1987-1993 uprising in the territories.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak assembled 21 of the 22 Arab League members – – their first such summit in six years — to present a united front against what they perceived would be the hard-line intransigence of the Netanyahu government, which had been installed only days before the June 22-23 Cairo gathering.

Even Jordan, Israel’s closest regional friend, seemed embarrassed by the peace moves it had made with the Jewish state.

And through it all, Syrian President Hafez Assad could be heard uttering a hearty, selfsatisfied “I told you so” to the Arab world.

But that specter of doom changed this past week, after meetings between Netanyahu and Mubarak, Netanyahu and Jordanian Prime Minister Abdul Karim al- Kabariti, and Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Tuesday’s 90-minute session between Levy and Arafat was the most significant, because regional Arab leaders have pegged any continued warming of relations with the Jewish state to the Netanyahu government’s approach to the Palestinians.

But those who were expecting a flaring of tempers at the Levy-Arafat meeting were sorely disappointed.

The two emerged from their session at the Erez Crossing separating Israel from Gaza with a dramatic pronouncement: They had found enough common ground between them to continue peace negotiations.

“I have no doubt that what we achieved today will give a push to the process that is meant to bring peace to Israel and the Palestinians,” Levy told a news conference.

He made no direct reference to contentious issues, including the Israeli redeployment in Hebron and the five-month closure of the territories imposed by Israel after the first of four Hamas suicide bombings in late February and early March.

But he said the sides had agreed to hold an “open dialogue on some of the delicate problems.”

Arafat stressed that “we shall work side by side in order to support this relationship for the benefit of Israel and the Palestinian people.”

Asked when he expected the remaining elements of the Interim Agreement to be implemented, Arafat said, “very soon.”

Gone were the warnings, the recriminations, the dire predictions that Palestinian officials had voiced in the days after Netanyahu’s electoral victory.

Instead, there was “an immediate chemistry between Levy and Arafat,” as one unnamed Palestinian official reportedly described the Erez encounter.

Levy later said Arafat had pledged to act on matters that the Netanyahu government perceived as violations of previously signed accords.

Arafat, he said, vowed to cease Palestinian activities in Jerusalem and to provide Israel a document clarifying the meaning of the April vote by the Palestine National Council to revoke those portions of the Palestinian charter calling for Israel’s destruction.

Levy said Arafat also vowed to step up the fight against terror and to seek information about Ilan Sa’adon, an Israeli soldier kidnapped and killed by Hamas several years ago whose burial site is unknown.

Levy said Hebron was also discussed, but would not elaborate.

But Arafat has demands, too.

Chief among them is the Israeli redeployment from most of Hebron, originally slated to be accomplished by late March.

Netanyahu said Tuesday that he expected to conclude consultations with government and security officials about Hebron and to issue a decision soon balancing Israel’s security needs with the previous government’s commitment to the redeployment.

Meanwhile, optimism about the peace process prevailed at Erez, as it did at Netanyahu’s meetings with Arab leaders.

The July 17 meeting in Tel Aviv between Netanyahu and Kabariti, the Israeli premier’s first meeting with an Arab leader since taking office, was marked by upbeat statements from both leaders.

It also was a rehearsal for Netanyahu’s more dramatic meeting with Mubarak the next day in Cairo.

Indeed, according to political observers, Mubarak had been worried by Netanyahu’s warm reception earlier this month in Washington, and wanted to know in advance whether the premier would repeat to him the same hard-line stances that he articulated during his U.S. visit.

The surprise meeting between Netanyahu and Kabariti, observers said, had been arranged by Mubarak in order to sound out Netanyahu before they met in Cairo.

Netanyahu was certainly sending a conciliatory message to Mubarak when he said at a joint news conference with Kabariti, “We both recognize the central importance of Egypt as the cornerstone for the Arab-Israeli peace.”

And after Netanyahu and Mubarak met on July 18 — exactly one month after Netanyahu presented his new government to the Knesset — they proclaimed a message of optimism.

“I can tell you now that I am very relaxed,” said Mubarak — the same Mubarak who had assembled the Arab League a month earlier to warn Netanyahu of the dangers of intransigence. “I understand his conceptions and I have great hopes that the peace process will continue.”

And from Netanyahu came a statement worthy of his predecessor, Shimon Peres: “We want to expand the circle of peace.”

True, Netanyahu spoke of the need for Israel’s peace partners to commit themselves to “fulfilling existing commitments,” a thinly veiled warning to Arafat that the peace process would not continue in the face of continued violations of the Israeli-Palestinian accords.

And it was also true that Mubarak told reporters that “whatever agreements are reached must be in accordance with U.N. resolutions [for the Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab territories]” as the basis for a lasting regional peace.

But more important was the climate of optimism the two leaders projected that negotiations, however arduous, could lead to peace.

Certainly, it is too soon to tell whether the upbeat pronouncements from the Erez, Cairo and Tel Aviv meetings will translate into substantive advances in the peace process.

But they gave more ground for hope than the dire warnings that emanated from last month’s Arab summit.

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