Optimism prevails after Israeli minister meets Arafat

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Last week Netanyahu and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak met and vowed cooperation. Then Netanyahu and Jordanian Prime Minister Abdul Karim al-Kabariti talked peace, and now Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy sat with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Tuesday's 90-minute Levy-Arafat session was the most significant because Arab leaders have pegged any 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 the Gaza Strip 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 Levy said the sides had agreed to hold an "open dialogue on some of the delicate problems."

Arafat added: "We shall work side by side in order to support this relationship for the benefit of Israel and the Palestinian people."

Arafat also said Israel and the Palestinian Authority would finalize the interim accords and Israeli redeployment from the West Bank "very soon."

Gone were the warnings, the recriminations, the dire predictions that Palestinian officials had voiced 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.

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

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.

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, Levy said he is willing to meet his Syrian counterpart, Farouk Shara, "anytime" and "anyplace." It is the first time a member of Netanyahu's government has made an overture to Syria.