As Labor party doves and hawks squared off on the eve of a primary to choose a successor to fallen party chief Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres, another former prime minister, took the limelight Monday, defending a plan to meet Yasser Arafat for truce talks, and arguing that Israel had scored unprecedented diplomatic victories amid tides of criticism at a closely-watched UN conference on racism.
Virtually a one-man peace process after nearly a year of bloodshed, Foreign Minister Peres said Monday he might meet the Palestinian leader at an annual gathering of European industrialists near Milan at week's end, in hopes of forging a cease-fire.
Peres's activism in maintaining communication with the Palestinians while stage-managing Israel's responses to Arab denunciations at the UN conference in Durban, South Africa, overshadowed the Tuesday contest between hawkish Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and dovish Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg.
"I was invited, and Arafat was also invited," Peres told Army Radio of the three-day European business convention. "So it could be that we will meet there, not because of our having chosen this place, but because of the instance of this event. Asked if a cease-fire would emerge from the current contacts with Arafat, Peres replied, "That is my hope."
Under fire by rightists for meeting Arafat, Peres was pressed to explain why Arafat would agree now to a cessation of violence. "I believe that he himself needs this," Peres said. "The intifada has not yielded much in the way of benefit, at the same time, to my sorrow, it has yielded increasing numbers of victims, as well as causing exceptional hardships, and where is it leading? Terror is not only difficult for us, it's hard for the Palestinians as well."
Peres and Arafat last week held telephone discussions that gave rise to a deal under which Israel ended a two-day incursion into the Palestinian town of Beit Jala in return for a pledge by Arafat to curb shooting from Beit Jala on the adjacent Jerusalem Jewish neighborhood of Gilo.
Gilo, a frequent target of Palestinian gunners and built on land captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, returned to the headlines as the site of one of four Jerusalem bombs that exploded Monday morning in apparent retaliation for Israel's killing last week of the leader of the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine wing of Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. Five Israelis were lightly wounded in the blasts.
Peres said there was agreement with the Palestinians on holding a meeting with Arafat, but the sides had not yet decided on where or when it might take place.
Turning to the Durban conference, Peres said that Israel had notched estimable diplomatic achievements despite an atmosphere that one Israeli commentator called "catastrophically anti-Israel, as conference delegates denounced alleged Israeli war-crimes and genocide, and a parallel gathering of non-governmental organizations branded Israel a "racist Apartheid state".
"This is the first time that the opposition to the Arab proposal includes not only the United States but also the 15 EU nations, which adopted a formal decision to oppose, all the Eastern European nations, which in the past would generally vote with the Arab side; Canada, Russia, the Latin American states ... India, Japan and Singapore."
Peres said the Arab actions at the conference were "disgusting" and "horrible", but indicated that a decision on whether to bolt the meeting would depend on U.S. actions.
Ha'aretz political correspondent Yossi Verter said that regardless of the outcome of the close Tuesday Labor primary contest between Ben-Eliezer and Burg, non-candidate Peres - the serial loser of Israeli electoral politics - had already emerged a victor.
Verter noted that in a policy reversal, Ben-Eliezer had declared support for a plan to create a position of Labor party presidency specifically for Peres. Burg has long voiced support for the plan, which would preserve a measure of honor and influence for Peres while clearing the field of party leadership for younger men.
"The Labor primaries are tomorrow," Verter writes in Monday's paper, "and Peres has already won."
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