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Arafat, Netanyahu In Tenative Agreement To Meet This Weekend

September 28, 1996

NEW YORK (AP) _ At U.S. urging, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Friday reached the brink of an agreement to meet Saturday night to try to defuse the violence sweeping Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

But a senior Palestinian official said late Friday that Arafat would not meet with Netanyahu until the Israeli prime minister agrees to close a newly opened tunnel entrance near Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque.

``We need progress, not meetings,″ Farouk Kaddoumi, the Palestinians’ chief foreign affairs official, said after a daylong debate in the U.N. Security Council on the violence in the West Bank and Gaza.

He the ``first action″ before a meeting between Arafat and Netanyahu takes place would have to be a public declaration that the tunnel would be closed. ``No temporary, permanent,″ he added.

Assurances that Netanyahu would notify Arafat at the meeting _ probably on the border between Israel and Gaza _ that Israeli troops in Hebron would be redeployed was a turning point in nudging the two leaders together, U.S. officials had said earlier.

Hebron is sacred to both Muslims and orthodox Jews. The Israeli troops would be confined to protecting a small Jewish enclave under an interim agreement reached in 1993 by the two sides.

With an agreement to meet close but not finalized, Secretary of State Warren Christopher suspended his telephone mediation and returned to Washington.

U.S. officials said there was virtual agreement for Netanyahu and Arafat to meet at Erez, the main crossing point between Israel proper and the Gaza Strip. A second likely meeting would be held early next week in the region with Christopher participating.

Christopher’s aim, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, is to move beyond the dispute over Israel’s opening of a second entrance to a tunnel that approaches the Temple Mount in Jerusalem

The secretary of state, they said, would like to see negotiations begin on a final settlement. Among the issues on the table are a Palestinian demand for a state with its capital in Jerusalem.

``We are very hopeful a meeting will be held quite soon,″ State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said.

Christopher has offered to go to the Middle East to help halt the violence that erupted this week after Israel opened the new entrance to the tunnel, which the Palestinians consider an encroachment on their mosque at the Temple Mount. The site is sacred also to Jews.

The secretary of state conferred by telephone with Israeli officials into the Jewish Sabbath, but Burns suggested not all were available to help reach a final decision for a meeting.

``We’re going to remain in touch with Israel and the Palestinians,″ Burns said.

He declined to say what problems remained, including whether Arafat was still demanding that the new tunnel entrance be closed before he meets with Netanyahu. The Israeli leader offered unconditional talks.

A U.S. official who spoke on condition said one result was likely to be a concession by Israel on Hebron. Israel has promised to withdraw all its troops except a small contingent to protect some 440 Jews who live among thousands of Arabs in the volatile West Bank town.

The onset of the Jewish Sabbath and the holiday of Sukkot provided a convenient opportunity for a temporary closing of the entrance Netanyahu decided to open on Tuesday. Israeli officials said the tunnel usually was closed on Fridays, the Muslim Sabbath, but said they plan to open it again Monday.

Even so, this could provide a basis for Arafat agreeing to see Netanyahu in Cairo before the entrance was reopened.

Christopher avoided reporters throughout the day, barring them from picture-taking sessions he held with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa and Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa.

A meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy was canceled because of Levy’s participation in a lengthy U.N. Security Council discussion of the incident. The United States had sought to discourage the discussion as impractical, saying it was better to work on conciliation between Israel and the Palestinians than to ``stand on soapboxes,″ as Burns put it.

``What we are trying to do is to convince the Israelis and Palestinians to take steps to defuse the crisis,″ Burns said. ``The United States would very much like to promote a meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Chairman Arafat.″

The U.S. spokesman said it was ``very discouraging″ to see the violence continue.

Christopher twice talked by telephone to President Clinton, who on Friday indicated without explanation that a decision may be imminent. He, too, offered U.S. assistance to the feuding parties, who in 1993 reached an interim accord that gave the Palestinians control of Gaza and most of the West Bank, with their demands for a state and a capital in Jerusalem to be taken up later.

It is those ``final status″ negotiations that Christopher would like to accelerate after a slow beginning in May, using this week’s outbreak as a vehicle for more direct American involvement in shaping a settlement.

Both Clinton and Christopher indirectly faulted Israel for the fighting. The administration’s position is that the future of holy sites in Jerusalem should be left to negotiation and not be dealt with unilaterally.

Meanwhile, Syrian President Hafez Assad accused Netanyahu of ``blocking the road to peace.″

In a CNN interview with Rowland Evans, the Syrian leader said Netanyahu had refused to recognize the Palestinians’ rights and also to withdraw from territory captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day war.

``If this is how he thinks, then why should Syria want peace?″ Assad asked rhetorically. ``If peace is not returning land to its owners, then why should we seek peace? Can any sensible man in the world expect Syria to make peace with the Israeli government while Syrian territory remains occupied by the Israelis?″

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