- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2001

JERUSALEM — Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat yesterday accepted a German proposal for face-to-face talks that some Israeli officials condemned as counterproductive and others said might lead to the easing of the Jewish state's siege on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The meeting was suggested by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who is in the region for three days of mediation aimed at getting Israelis and Palestinians to stop fighting and resume peace talks, which have been dormant for much of the past year.
It would be the first meeting between the two men in five weeks, and, although analysts on both sides played down its significance, Mr. Fischer's mission marked the first initiative to end the violence since a U.S.-mediated cease-fire collapsed soon after it was reached in June.
A bombing in central Jerusalem yesterday that caused damage but no casualties underscored the challenge facing any new initiative.
"What we need is the beginning of the implementation [of the previous truce]. Not the invention of a new wheel, but to make the existing wheels run," Mr. Fischer told reporters after talks with Mr. Arafat yesterday.
Officials in the United States welcomed the development.
"There's an initiative under way, and the United States is supportive of any initiative that the parties undertake themselves," National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said during a trip with President Bush to Independence, Mo.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell interrupted his vacation in upstate New York yesterday afternoon to speak by phone with Mr. Fischer after the German diplomat's second meeting with Mr. Arafat in Ramallah.
Mr. Powell and Mr. Fischer had spoken by phone over the weekend before Mr. Fischer's Mideast trip, but U.S. officials would not say whether the effort to bring the two sides together in Germany had been discussed. U.S. officials had been pushing intensively on their own to set up such a face-to-face contact between the two sides in recent weeks, with little apparent success.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker rejected the suggestion that the German breakthrough constituted a "rebuff" to the Bush administration's efforts to mediate a deal.
The Germans are "trusted friends and close NATO allies," said Mr. Reeker, who noted that the United States has consistently supported efforts by the European Union and by individual nations to promote peace in the region.
The German official also met Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, suggesting that he send Mr. Peres to Berlin for several rounds of talks with Mr. Arafat. Later in the day, Mr. Peres' office issued a statement confirming that a meeting would take place but saying the place and time had not been set.
With Mr. Peres already abroad and Mr. Arafat due to begin a visit to China tomorrow, next week appeared to be the earliest opportunity for talks.
The announcement came amid a growing debate within Mr. Sharon's Cabinet over how best to deal with Mr. Arafat, whether to engage him in talks aimed at reducing the violence or shun him in a bid to foster his international isolation.
Mr. Peres, the chief advocate of engagement in Mr. Sharon's left-right coalition, got permission from Mr. Sharon two weeks ago to pursue cease-fire negotiations with top Palestinian officials.
His aides say Mr. Peres intends to offer a staged easing of the closure in the West Bank and Gaza, which has crippled the Palestinian economy. Mr. Peres presented his proposal to U.S. Middle East envoy David Satterfield and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer at a meeting last week, according to officials close to the foreign minister.
Under the plan, Mr. Arafat would be required to take measures to ease the violence against Israel. In exchange, Israel would lift the closure in areas where the level of fighting decreases.
The initiative would begin in the Gaza Strip, where unemployment has reached 50 percent, according to some estimates.
Mr. Peres has been saying for months that the closure, which Israel imposes to prevent suicide bombers and other militants from entering the Jewish state, backfires on Israel by creating economic despair and stoking extremism among Palestinians. At a meeting of Foreign Ministry officials last week, Mr. Peres said a smarter Israeli policy would take this into account.
"Despite the wish to look after our citizens' security, we need to show more responsibility toward the Palestinians," he said.
Mr. Peres and Mr. Sharon have sometimes been awkward partners in Mr. Sharon's 6-month-old government. Mr. Sharon wants a complete halt in violence before Israel makes any concessions, a demand Mr. Peres hints is unrealistic.
On the Palestinian side, hard-liners also condemned the initiative. A leaflet issued by the Islamic militant Hamas group said Mr. Peres was trying to deceive the Arabs.
"Resuming talks with Peres the terrorist is tantamount to stabbing the intifada [Palestinian uprising] in the back," it said.
David R. Sands contributed to this report from Washington.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide