There were a number of signals early this week that a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Yasir Arafat may take place while both men are here to address the United Nations General Assembly. It would be their first in 11 months.
The two men have spoken on the phone, however, most recently on Sunday when Arafat called Netanyahu to wish him a happy New Year. Although they did not commit to meeting in New York when they are both here this weekend, the two spoke about the peace process and about ways to break the deadlock that has paralyzed negotiations for 19 months.
On Tuesday, just before boarding a plane to New York, Netanyahu spoke by phone with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. He reportedly told her that U.S. special envoy Dennis Ross had made some progress during his weeklong visit to the Middle East last week. Specifically, he said there had been movement regarding Israel’s agreement to a U.S. proposal to withdraw troops from another 13 percent of the West Bank. Israel wants 3 percent of that land is to be designated a nature preserve.
But Netanyahu also reportedly told Albright that there would be no troop withdrawal unless the Palestinians implement their pledge to crack down on terrorists operating from the territories. In addition, he is said to have demanded that the PLO abrogate the parts of its charter calling for the destruction of Israel.
The prime minister’s communications director, David Bar-Illan, said an Arafat meeting would be discussed when Netanyahu and Albright met for lunch on Wednesday.
“We hope there will be enough movement to make a summit productive,” he said. “No one wants a summit that will be disappointing.”
A spokesperson for the Israeli Mission to the UN said Albright spoke also on the phone with Arafat and that before there can be a summit, Israel wanted to hear assurances that Arafat will honor the security commitments he has made. Arafat was scheduled to arrive in New York on Saturday. Netanyahu is slated to leave on Sunday.
“They are hopeful there will be a meeting,” she said. “It looks good.”
But Arafat, in remarks to reporters in Gaza on Tuesday, accused Netanyahu of destroying the peace process. And the official Palestinian Authority newspaper, Al-Hayat al-Jidida, printed the Fatah newsletter in which Ross was characterized was a “Shylock” and a “biased mediator [who is] part of the oppressive racist Zionist apparatus.”
The Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, wrote to Arafat saying he found it “inexcusable that such criticism is expressed through anti-Semitism.” And he and ADL’s national chairman, Howard Berkowitz, called on Arafat, who is also chairman of Fatah, to “immediately apologize.” A similar call was issued by the American Jewish Congress.
But observers noted that Arafat ordered the imprisonment for two days of a senior Palestinian official for inciting a crowd during a Hamas rally in Ramallah last week.
The official had called for revenge against Israel for killing two brothers who were linked to suicide bus bombings in Israel last year.
While in New York, Netanyahu, who also serves as Israel’s foreign minister, will hold about 20 meetings with world leaders, including those from Britain, Germany, Egypt, China, Russia and Austria. He is being accompanied by his aide, Yitzhak Molcho, political adviser Uzi Arad and the cabinet secretary, Dan Naveh.
Despite the deadlock in the peace process, a Gallup poll for the Israeli newspaper Maariv last week found that 79 percent of Israelis polled still supported the peace process.