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Levy Named Israel Foreign Minister

July 4, 1999

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) _ Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak picked as his foreign minister Sunday the man who quit the same job in disgruntlement under Barak’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Word of the appointment came from David Levy, who emerged from talks with Barak on the formation of the new Cabinet and told reporters he had been given the post in the new government, expected to take office Wednesday.

Levy, a top official in Barak’s One Israel party, had quit as foreign minister in January 1998 to protest Netanyahu’s hard-line policies toward the Palestinians.

The appointment had been expected. Several other politicians have announced publicly they have been promised portfolios in the Barak government, but Levy was the first to specify the job he had been given.

``It was clear two days ago, yesterday and we concluded it and he informed me about it now,″ Levy told reporters as he left the meeting. ``I’m very happy that we will be able to work in harmony.″

The Moroccan-born Levy is fluent in Arabic and French, but some Israeli commentators have questioned his fitness to serve as foreign minister because he cannot speak English.

Levy’s decision to withdraw his Gesher faction from Netanyahu’s government left it paralyzed, with only 61 members in the 120-seat Knesset, the parliament. Netanyahu announced elections a few months later in large part due to that gridlock.

Meanwhile, the Yediot Aharanoth newspaper reported Sunday that Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will meet on July 12, the first talks Barak has scheduled with a foreign leader after the Knesset is expected to approve his government on Wednesday.

The two will meet at the Erez border crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip, the daily reported.

Barak’s office confirmed Friday that the premier-elect had called Arafat and the two had agreed to meet soon but spokesman David Ziso would not say when.

Barak assured Arafat in the call that he would follow in the footsteps of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the first Israeli-Palestinian agreement with Arafat in 1993.

During the three years of Netanyahu’s rule, peace talks with the Palestinians proceeded in fits and starts and then were frozen by him in December last year. He had also refused to renew negotiations with the Syrians.

Barak spokesman David Ziso would only say that no decision had yet been made on a meeting with Arafat and no date was set.

The prime minister-elect has promised to quickly advance in the peace process on all tracks. The coalition he cobbled together of religious, secular, dovish, centrist and nationalist parties comprising 75 members in the Knesset has agreed to back his moderate views on the negotiations with Israel’s Arab neighbors.

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