News Analysis: Israeli president prodding Netanyahu-Arafat meeting

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JERUSALEM — If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat in the coming weeks, he will have been shamed into it by President Ezer Weizman.

Since Netanyahu formed his government in June, he has met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo and Jordan's King Hussein in Amman, but he has avoided meeting with Israel's Palestinian peace partner.

But the prime minister may no longer be able to avoid a meeting after Sunday's sudden — and unprecedented — intervention by Weizman.

Concerned that the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the snubbing of Arafat could undermine current peace accords, Weizman, whose office is largely ceremonial, agreed to Arafat's request for a meeting.

The move came days after former Premier Shimon Peres met with Arafat in Gaza to discuss the status of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Netanyahu accused Peres of interfering in the peace process.

However, after Weizman's intervention, Netanyahu's aides said a Netanyahu-Arafat meeting is now more likely.

Although they would not say when it would be held, there was speculation here that the two might meet before Netanyahu's scheduled visit to the United States just before Rosh Hashanah.

At the same time, aides to Weizman insisted that if a Netanyahu-Arafat meeting does not take place soon, the president would go ahead with his own plans to host Arafat at his private home in Caesarea.

Weizman's prodding comes amid growing international concern about the stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Mubarak has threatened to cancel a regional economic summit scheduled for November in Cairo if there is no progress with the Palestinians.

Israel, which has seen its ties to the Arab world expand since the self-rule accords were signed with the Palestinians in 1993, has a vested interest in the conference.

Among Palestinians, there is growing anxiety as they await decisions by the Netanyahu government regarding the long-delayed redeployment of Israeli troops from most of Hebron and the resumption of the final-status talks, which will address settlements, Jerusalem and Palestinian statehood.

While not yet making a final decision on Hebron, Netanyahu has signaled the redeployment would be much less generous than the terms agreed to under the previous Peres government.

Further, Netanyahu has shown no willingness to carry out another provision of the Interim Agreement — three more Israeli army redeployments set to begin in September that would turn over additional West Bank territory to the Palestinians.

Palestinians now feel Arafat, who regularly met with Israel's top leaders, including Peres and his predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin, is being treated with contempt by Netanyahu.

But Netanyahu may not be able to shrug off Weizman's initiative, given the widespread approval it generated even within the premier's own Likud ranks.

Likud Knesset member Gideon Ezra, a former deputy head of the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency, urged Netanyahu to stop delaying and meet with Arafat immediately.

Ezra hoped that a Netanyahu-Arafat meeting would generate a dynamic of its own that would return Israel and the Palestinians to the negotiating table.

By finally meeting with Arafat, Netanyahu would be lifting a taboo he has carried for years. Yet risks exist: Political observers here say that even if the meeting does take place, it may spark deeper friction between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority if the talks only confirm the growing divide between the two sides.

Weizman's dramatic intervention burst upon an Israeli public going back to work Sunday morning after a late summer weekend.

The largest circulation newspaper, Yediot Achronot, reported that Arafat, in a letter to Weizman, had voiced his concerns about the peace process and had asked to see him.

Weizman, the paper added, proposed inviting the Palestinian leader to his seaside villa at Caesarea, and had informed Netanyahu accordingly.

Within hours of the paper's hitting the streets, Netanyahu was at the president's official residence in Jerusalem and after more than an hour, the two men emerged to face a battery of reporters.

Plainly, they were determined to maintain a cordial facade.

"We just like one another," Netanyahu declared, with Weizman nodding his agreement.

But the prime minister became visibly stiffer as the president recounted in detail his correspondence with Arafat and explained why he was prepared to host him in Caesarea.

"As the first Palestinian leader in 100 years of conflict who has achieved important political success, as our neighbor who is alongside us and amongst us," Arafat's request for a meeting should be honored, Weizman said.

Such a meeting would be coordinated, of course, with the prime minister and the government, the president added. After all, there were logistical arrangements, such as Arafat's helicopter route, that require official authorization.

Weizman denied that he had effectively presented Netanyahu with an ultimatum. That would have been "childish," Weizman said.

Nonetheless, the president could not dispel the impression that in essence he was pressuring the prime minister.

Netanyahu, for his part, reiterated his longtime position that he would meet Arafat if the national interest required it.

Privately, government sources said a series of high-level meetings between Israeli and Palestinian policy-makers was already under way.

Foreign Minister David Levy met with Arafat on July 23, and the prime minister's foreign affairs adviser, Dore Gold, has been meeting frequently with Arafat's deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu-Mazen.

And last week, Netanyahu appointed former Israeli army Chief of Staff Dan Shomron to lead the Israeli negotiations with the Palestinians. Netanyahu said those talks would resume shortly, but he did not say when.

These meetings would have naturally led, in time, to a Netanyahu-Arafat summit, according to the government sources.

But without Netanyahu meeting Arafat, friction between Israel and the Palestinian Authority escalated, prompting Weizman to take his unorthodox action.

In Israel, the president is largely a ceremonial figure with no political role. His influence on politics, if he exerts any, derives from his own personality and from the moral prestige of his position as the head of state.

Yet Weizman's intervention, designed to speed up the peace process, drew broad support.

"We promised the voters a peace process," said Likud Knesset member Meir Sheetrit. "Let's get on with it."