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Israeli Leader Finds a Partner in a Longtime Enemy

October 4, 1996

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) _ When his handshake turned into a lingering, two-handed squeeze, Israelis noticed.

When he leaned over to whisper in his longtime enemy’s ear _ then said it wasn’t the first time _ people started talking.

What was Benjamin Netanyahu doing?

Since returning Thursday from the Washington summit, the Israeli prime minister has described Yasser Arafat as a partner with whom he could ``sit together to resolve problems″ and ``negotiate peace without violence.″

Netanyahu’s change in demeanor has raised both suspicions and hopes in Israel. He was the one who called Arafat an unrepentant terrorist and kept him at bay for three months after Israel’s May elections until begrudgingly agreeing to a quick meeting. Only last week, Netanyahu blamed Arafat for inciting clashes that killed 62 Arabs and 16 Israelis.

``When you get to know somebody you get to change your opinion,″ Netanyahu explained after their first lengthy one-on-one talks. ``As you get to know somebody better, you can have different appreciations of their character, and I think that happened. I’d like to believe it is mutual.″

Despite the lack of any concrete progress in the talks, Netanyahu concluded the meetings by firmly gripping the Palestinian leader’s hand with both of his own and holding it at length, conveying a new enthusiasm that didn’t escape Israelis.

``Bibi’s in love,″ read the headline of a mocking front-page commentary in the daily Yediot Ahronot newspaper.

Some argued that the friendly tone was an attempt to mask the absence of substantive agreements from the Washington summit.

Israel did not give in to demands to close the new entrance to an archeological tunnel that sparked last week’s rioting. Netanyahu also refused to set a date for the promised but long-delayed withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank town of Hebron. Those issues, among others, were to be discussed in talks beginning Sunday.

Palestinian negotiators, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Netanyahu’s tone had changed. He was more polite and willing to listen to Arafat, they said, but the substance of his positions remained the same.

``Netanyahu lacks flexibility and moderation,″ said Yasser Abed-Rabbo, a leading minister in Arafat’s Cabinet. ``We are turning back to the old ideological position which led the area to decades of confrontation.″

Netanyahu’s aides were eager to spin the positive vibes as the real story. Netanyahu’s spokesman, Shai Bazak, said the two ``definitely tried to find tracks to each other’s hearts.″

Added another aide: ``Netanyahu demonized Arafat. Now he sees they need one another.″

A senior official present at Wednesday’s meeting described the tension after American officials left Netanyahu and Arafat to talk alone Tuesday:

Arafat suddenly called in an aide, so Netanyahu called one in. Then, both summoned more aides. Eventually, the two leaders relaxed and most of the aides were sent out.

``In the end, they began to talk about everything. ...It was a very pleasant discussion,″ said the official, on condition of anonymity.

Aides to Netanyahu, who also insisted on anonymity, said the two leaders shared war stories and amicably discussed the future during 3 1/2 hours of one-on-one talks.

``It was the first time that Netanyahu really heard him and (that) Arafat listened to the premier,″ a senior Israeli official said.

Both appeared taciturn Wednesday in the East Room of the White House while President Clinton delivered a statement. But at one point, Netanyahu turned to Arafat and whispered something in the Palestinian leader’s ear.

Netanyahu refused to tell reporters what he said, but added that there had been ``many whispers″ between them during the two days of talks.

Ehud Yaari, Israel TV’s Arab affairs correspondent, cautioned that Netanyahu’s apparent change of heart may not be reciprocated without a corresponding change in policy.

``Arafat,″ he said, ``did not fall in love with Netanyahu.″

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