Jerusalem key issue in peace talks-Arafat

 

THE Palestinian President, Mr Yasser Arafat, said yesterday that his landmark meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu, was positive but that the issue of Jerusalem would either make or break the Middle East peace.

"This was a positive meeting that we hope will reinforce the process of peace between Arabs and Israelis and peace in the whole region", Mr Arafat said in a speech to Rome community leaders, including Jews.

"I hope that the meeting is a breakthrough and will put into effect what has already been agreed", he said after talks with the Italian Foreign Minister, Mr Lamberto Dini.

Mr Arafat met Mr Netanyahu on Wednesday for a brief summit on the Israel-Gaza border to relaunch stalled talks on extending Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza.

Although they did not solve major problems, the meeting and a handshake were seen as vital symbols of both sides' commitment to the Oslo agreement.

The Israeli Foreign Minister, Mr David Levy, was also in Rome yesterday before travelling on to London and Dublin, but did not meet Mr Arafat. Mr Levy said Israel would continue the peace process while safeguarding its own security.

In his speech at Rome's city hall, Mr Arafat took a firm stand on Jerusalem, saying the issue of its status "could either make the peace process fall or become a symbol of coexistence and harmony between Muslims, Christians and Jews".

Palestinians view East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state. Its fate is up for negotiation at final peace talks.

"We want Jerusalem to be an open city, capital of two peoples, the Palestinian people and the Israeli people", Mr Arafat said.

The encounter was attended by leaders of the Italian and Roman Jewish communities, some of whom remained stony-faced when he spoke of Jerusalem. The Jewish community vividly remembers a 1982 Palestinian guerrilla attack on a Rome synagogue that killed a boy aged two.

The Union of Young Italian Jews asked Mr Dini to press Mr Arafat to hand over a Palestinian who was convicted in his absence in 1988 to life imprisonment for the synagogue attack.

At his meeting with Mr Dini, Mr Arafat said Palestinians were committed to peace but the process needed European support.

Mr Arafat began his 12-hour visit to Rome at the Vatican, where he held talks with two senior diplomats, but he did not meet Pope John Paul.

A Vatican statement said talks were cordial and covered the "existing difficulties" in the peace negotiations.