A secret overnight summit between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat made unexpected progress Sunday but failed to clinch a deal on the redeployment of Israeli troops from most of Hebron.
Both sides blamed the other for the holdup in an agreement on the long-delayed Israeli pullback in the volatile West Bank city, but they agreed that the remaining impasse centers on Israel’s refusal to agree to Arafat’s demand that Netanyahu set a timetable for further troop redeployments in rural West Bank areas.
Brought together by the persistent efforts of President Clinton’s Mideast envoy, Dennis Ross, who sat in on the four-hour meeting, the leaders did reach agreement on new security measures to widen a disputed street in Hebron to better ensure the safety of the 400 Jewish settlers living there among more than 100,000 Arabs.
The secret summit, disclosed Sunday morning by Israel Radio, came on a day when Israelis were starting a new year with continued skirmishes against Islamic rebels in Lebanon and faint signs of possible compromise with the Palestine Liberation Organization on disputed Jerusalem, claimed by both Israel and the PLO as their capital.
Israeli warplanes pounded suspected Hezbollah guerrilla targets in southern Lebanon for the third successive day.
If the issue of Hebron is resolved, Israel and the PLO are supposed to move on to the so-called final status talks, including attempts to reach a permanent agreement on Jerusalem, expected to be the toughest negotiations to date. Netanyahu opposes even discussing a possible division of Israel’s capital.
The Netanyahu-Arafat summit began under cover of darkness about 2:30 a.m. and ended around dawn, and Israeli analysts described it as a joyless, somber working session on the border between Israel and the PLO-ruled Gaza Strip.
But it was also another crucial opportunity to build trust between the two rivals, whose suspicions of each other have contributed substantially to the deadlock between them, according to U.S. officials.
“I met with Yasser Arafat at the Erez junction,” a cautiously optimistic Netanyahu told business leaders meeting Sunday afternoon at the Chamber of Commerce in Tel Aviv. “We are making progress but we still haven’t reached full agreement on all the issues.
“I think that there are some meetings that don’t need to endure the flash of cameras,” Netanyahu said, underscoring the fact that one aim of the summit was to get the two leaders together away from the distractions and intrusions of the media, which contribute to a tendency on both sides toward tough posturing.
“It was a serious meeting and it was considered a good meeting and useful, and there was progress made,” Moshe Fogel, the chief Israeli government spokesman, said in an interview. “But there are still issues to be resolved.