Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line government held its first high-level meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Tuesday and agreed to resume peace negotiations that have been in question since the Likud Party leader’s election in May.
Foreign Minister David Levy and Arafat shook hands and smiled warmly for the cameras after their 90-minute meeting at a checkpoint between Israel and the Palestinianruled Gaza Strip.
The talks appeared to contain more form than substance, but when expectations are as low as they have been, even handshakes and a civil exchange are regarded as success, analysts said.
Levy, considered a moderate in the right-wing government, praised Arafat’s openness and readiness to cooperate. “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,” he said at a joint news conference.
The meeting was meant to send a conciliatory signal to the Arab world, which feared that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process had reached the end of the road. Likud has disputed Arafat’s leadership of the Palestinian people for decades, and party leaders continued to call him a “terrorist” and “murderer” on the eve of the election.
Netanyahu launched his campaign for prime minister by opposing the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords and said that he would never meet with Arafat. Although he later reversed himself, many Palestinians and political observers have had their doubts, given Netanyahu’s rejection of the concept of trading land for peace.
Asked when he expected Israel to carry out the long delayed pullback from the West Bank city of Hebron and other aspects of their peace accords, Arafat said: “Very soon.”
But no date was announced.