Rabin, Arafat Try to Restore Peace Process Momentum


Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, in an air-clearing meeting after a month of crises, attempted here Thursday to restore the cooperation that underpins the search for peace in the Middle East.

Rabin--who did most of the talking in the cordial, 45-minute session--said the two discussed the agenda for negotiations that open next week on Palestinian national elections and on an accompanying pullback by Israeli troops from Palestinian towns and villages on the West Bank.

Neither man, however, would do more than describe their private, one-on-one session as positive.

The two leaders, who had just received a Spanish peace prize for their efforts to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, had wanted to move beyond the recent clashes in the Gaza Strip between Arafat's supporters and radical Muslim fundamentalists and the continuing attacks by the radicals upon Israeli soldiers and civilians, in both Gaza and Israel itself.

"The peace process is in a continuous crisis and is really in danger, great danger even, of stalling," an Arafat adviser commented. "We need to recover the momentum."

According to Israeli and Palestinian officials, the issues before the two leaders were threefold:

* Negotiations on the Palestinian elections, originally envisioned for last July, and the Israeli redeployment that is to precede them on the West Bank.

* The development assistance needed by the Palestinian Authority, which Arafat heads as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

* The tense situation in the Gaza Strip, where further protests are expected today by supporters of the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, and the militant group Islamic Jihad to denounce the killing last Friday of at least 12 people during clashes with the Palestinian police.

Israeli Arab mediators secured a temporary truce between Hamas and Fatah, the PLO's largest faction, that is meant to prevent violence from erupting. But even the mediators have doubts about whether the truce, worked out at the senior political level, will keep order in the street, which is increasingly dominated by youthful, armed activists.

"Tomorrow is a test for all sides," said Dr. Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli Arab and PLO activist, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times on Thursday.

The truce calls for all factions to leave their weapons at home while negotiations on a larger political settlement between Hamas and Fatah continue. Only the Palestinian police are to carry weapons in the street.

Fatah members plan a counter-rally.

"The situation is extremely delicate, extremely delicate," the Arafat aide said. "We must get through this weekend, and then next week--in negotiations with the Israelis and with the international aid donors--(and) recover the momentum toward peace."

Arafat called again on Thursday for national elections for the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, both as a way of establishing the credibility of his appointed government and settling the balance of power between the competing Palestinian political factions.

"One of the most important means of reinforcing the peace process and guaranteeing its continuation and achieving its goals is by enabling the Palestinian people to choose their representatives and political bodies, freely, through an honest election process under international supervision," Arafat told the awards ceremony in this northern Spanish city.

Rabin noted at an earlier press conference in Madrid, however, that first there must be an agreement on the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian towns and villages on the West Bank and that this will be difficult because of the need to protect the 125,000 Jewish settlers living there.

Arafat also called on the World Bank to release more of the $2.4 billion pledged last year by the international community to finance Palestinian development.

With donors scheduled to meet next week in Brussels, Rabin urged Arafat to meet their requirements for "transparent and accountable" handling of the funds, and he pledged Israel's support in getting the aid.

More important than their declarations, however, was the evident mutual effort to clear the air after the turmoil in Gaza and to accelerate the negotiations that had bogged down in the recriminations over who was responsible for the clashes.

In unusual public praise for Arafat, Rabin described him as a man committed, like himself, to turning a century of conflict into an era of peace.

"I believe that Chairman Arafat is of the same mind--that man can live in another way," Rabin said. "Enough of hostility which knows no end. If we did not believe this, we would not stand here together this evening and be awarded this distinguished prize.

"We knew that a hundred years of bloodshed would not be wiped out in a single handshake, with a smile before a camera," Rabin said as he accepted the Prince of Asturias peace prize from Prince Felipe, the Spanish crown prince. "But we did not believe just how bitter would be those enemies of peace."

In a gesture to Rabin, Arafat toned down his rhetoric and even omitted his usual call for Arab East Jerusalem to be the capital of an independent Palestinian state, confining himself to a description of the city as sacred to Muslims, Christians and Jews alike.

Senior Israeli officials now express open pessimism about the chances that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will survive without a sudden, drastic improvement in the fortunes of the Palestinian governing authority in Gaza.

In addition to blaming the international donors for failing to deliver promised aid, the Israelis blame Arafat for incompetence in governing and vacillation in dealing with the Islamic militants and other opponents of the peace accord.

Arafat came to Spain looking for reassurance from Rabin that Israel will twist the arms of international donors in Brussels, where donors are expected to agree to speed up the delivery of aid to the Palestinian Authority. Both Rabin and Arafat believe that an adequate flow of aid into Gaza is vital for the continued health of Arafat's ailing government.

Times staff writer Mary Curtius in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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