Netanyahu acts with sensitivity to Palestinians after shootings


MR Noam Arnon, spokesman for the Jewish settlers of Hebron, says Wednesday's shooting spree in the city by an Israeli soldier could have brought even more catastrophic repercussions had Palestinian police already been deployed in the city.

"It would have only caused more bloodshed, clashes and even war," Mr Arnon claimed yesterday.

But Israel's Prime Minister, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu, knows that it was Mr Yasser Arafat and, his Palestinian security agencies that prevented an eruption of violence in Hebron and throughout the West Bank and Gaza after the attack.

Although Mr Netanyahu and Mr Arafat were still a point or two away from finalising the deal on the Israeli military withdrawal from Hebron last night, there seems little doubt now that the deal will be done. It is also apparent that this latest example of Jewish militant violence has helped persuade Mr Netanyahu that he has to cement his wary partnership with Mr Arafat, and face up rather than give in to the right wing Jewish extremists who seek to destroy peace efforts.

Seven months after he came to power, Mr Netanyahu's handling of Wednesday's shooting indicated he had finally realised the unavoidable need to work hand in hand with Mr Arafat rather than to score points off him.

Whereas in September, Mr Netanyahu set off a spiral of Israeli Palestinian confrontation that ended with more than 70 people dead on both sides after casually opening an entrance to an acutely controversial Jerusalem archaeological tunnel, on Wednesday the prime minister acted with fine tuned sensitivity to Palestinian emotions.

No sooner had word come through that an off duty Israeli soldier, Mr Noam Friedman, had fired into Hebron's crowded central market than Mr Netanyahu telephoned Mr Arafat. He condemned the shooting and implored the Palestinians not to suspend peace talks. His ministers offered to help treat the wounded; his military chiefs encouraged Mr Arafat's security personnel to deploy throughout Hebron, still officially under sole Israeli control, to keep Palestinian tempers in check.

To watch Mr Netanyahu in action on Wednesday was to experience a certain deja vu. In his determined talk of keeping the peace process alive at all costs and his evident appreciation of the fact that Mr Arafat had helped prevent a new descent into full scale confrontation, the Likud prime minister sounded like his moderate Labour predecessors, Mr Yitzhak Rabin and Mr Shimon Peres.

The talking points in Israel yesterday revolved around the issue of the gunman's psychiatric history and the "scandal" of his having been drafted into the army and supplied with an automatic weapon. But his attempted rupture of the peace process has had the opposite effect. Mr Friedman's 10 second volley of gunfire at the Palestinians has pushed Mr Netanyahu more firmly into an embrace with Mr Arafat.

David Horovitz is managing editor of the Jerusalem Report

AFP adds from Paris: France condemned the attack by an Israeli soldier in Hebron as an act of terror, saying it showed the urgent need for an agreement on Israeli redeployment.

"This act by a criminal fanatic was clearly aimed at the peace process and shows the urgent need for a complete implementation of the Israeli Palestinian accords, starting with that on Hebron," a foreign ministry spokesman said.