"the Vatican, which has long sought a voice in Arab-Israeli talks and the future of Jerusalem. "

Associated Press

September 5, 1996


TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) -- Talking peace after a long-avoided meeting with Yasser Arafat, Israel's prime minister is predicting a settlement with the Palestinians that will be hailed worldwide as a model for resolving disputes.

The goal is "maximal freedom for the Palestinians and maximal security for Israel," Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters Wednesday.

Both Arafat and Israel's foreign minister, David Levy, were in Rome today on separate missions to seek support for their positions. Arafat held high-level talks at the Vatican, which has long sought a voice in Arab-Israeli talks and the future of Jerusalem.

A Vatican statement said Arafat and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's secretary of state, reviewed the peace process and "the existing difficulties in the negotiations." It noted the Church's interest in the "delicate problem" of Jerusalem and religious freedom in the region.

Levy, who met with his Italian counterpart, Lamberto Dini, repeated Israel's position on any Palestinian claim to Jerusalem. "There is just one address for Arafat, and that is Gaza," he said. The Palestinians want the eastern Arab sector of the city as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu mapped out his vision for a future Palestinian entity that would not be quite the state Palestinians seek, but perhaps more independent than some of his hard-line voters can stomach.

His meeting Wednesday with Arafat -- the first between a right-wing Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian leader -- helped cool the Israeli-Palestinian tension growing since Netanyahu's May election victory over peace architect Shimon Peres.

Although Netanyahu was pressured into the meeting by the United States and Egypt, it signaled to Palestinians that the other half of deeply divided Israel -- supporters of hard-line and religious parties -- finally accepts them and Arafat as peace partners.

But many in Netanyahu's Likud Party are livid over his handshake with a man they still consider a terrorist. They promised the premier an unpleasant reception at a party convention today.

Cabinet ministers including Benny Begin and Ariel Sharon loudly opposed the move. The nationalist Moledet Party leader Rehavam Zeevi said he felt like apologizing to his party's supporters for telling them to vote for Netanyahu.

Outside Netanyahu's office Wednesday, right-wing demonstrators waved signs saying "Thou shalt not betray." In the militant settlement of Kiryat Arba, Mayor Zvi Katzover reportedly hung a black flag from his home.

As opposition leader, Netanyahu had bitterly criticized the late premier Yitzhak Rabin for his landmark peace accord with Arafat in 1993.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu looked grim as he reached across a table -- reportedly present to prevent an embarrassing Arafat hug -- to grasp Arafat's hand.

Pictures of "The Handshake" were splashed across front pages of Israeli and Palestinian newspapers today.

Rabin's widow, Leah, has blamed Netanyahu in the past for creating a political climate that led to the assassination of Rabin by a right-wing Israeli. Today, she was bitter.

Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai was to meet Sunday with Arafat, and lower-level talks would follow Monday on key outstanding issues.

These included Israel's desire to change the terms of its promised pullout from the West Bank town of Hebron and the Palestinians' demand that Israel ease the six-month closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But Arafat said Wednesday's meeting set the stage for restarting a peace process frozen since the Israeli election: "The path was cleared for us to negotiate on all levels and in all aspects."

Netanyahu stood somewhat stiffly beside Arafat. Later, in Tel Aviv, he appeared buoyed and confident that peace -- on his terms -- was within reach.

Netanyahu said he already was thinking about how to reach "a final settlement with a Palestinian entity that has wide-ranging authority to run the lives of the Palestinians in most respects."

According to the existing timetable, Israel and the Palestinians are to reach a final settlement by 1999. While the previous Labor government appeared poised to grant them independence, the Palestinians fear Netanyahu wants to limit them to the autonomy they already have gained.