Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Tension Eases in Mideast Conflict Netanyahu Now Views Arafat in Kinder Light

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Tension Eases in Mideast Conflict Netanyahu Now Views Arafat in Kinder Light

Article excerpt

EXPRESSING NEW confidence in Yasser Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began pulling tanks back Thursday and easing the army's grip on the West Bank and Gaza Strip ahead of weekend peace talks.

Arafat, the Palestinian leader, responded by issuing new orders to his security forces to put a lid on riots, even though the Palestinians were disappointed by the two-day summit meeting between the two leaders this week in Washington.

The West Bank and Gaza Strip were largely quiet Thursday after being racked by violence that claimed 76 lives last week when Israel opened a new entrance to an archaeological tunnel near holy sites in east Jerusalem. But many voiced doubts that the calm would continue. In the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Palestinian police kept stone throwers away from Rachel's Tomb, a Jewish shrine, to protect 200 Israelis praying there. But despite the apparent Netanyahu-Arafat chemistry generated by the talks in Washington, the two leaders are still far apart on major issues, including a timetable for Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank city of Hebron and rural West Bank areas. The stakes are high for the negotiations, which begin Sunday at the Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip. If the talks deadlock, the region could plunge into new violence and kill prospects for peace. Netanyahu said Thursday that he had had a change of heart about Arafat, the man he held in contempt and avoided meeting for three months after his election victory in May. "When you get to know somebody, you get to change your opinion," Netanyahu said. "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 that it is mutual." Arafat was in Morocco on Thursday and did not comment. But Palestinian negotiators who accompanied Arafat to Washington said that although Netanyahu was more polite and considerate toward Arafat, he had not changed his positions. Keeping their promise to President Bill Clinton, both leaders tried Thursday to calm tension. Israeli tanks pulled back from the outskirts of the West Bank town of Qalqiliya, and Israel television said armored vehicles were also moving away from the other autonomous enclaves. …

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