Two Communist members of the Israeli parliament held unprecedented talks yesterday with Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The meeting in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia produced highly critical reaction here today.
It was the first such meeting with Arafat and it involved Knesset members Charlie Bitton and Tewfik Toubi.It lasted for about one hour and ended with a joint statement with both sides voicing their "joint desire for a just peace in the Middle East."
Apart from the parliament members, the Israeli delegation included the well-known lawyer Felicia Langer and the secretary of the Israeli peace movement.They also met with two West Bank mayors who were expelled several months ago by the Israeli military authorities, Fahd Kawasmeh of Hebron and Mohammed Milhem of Halhul. Another Palestinian leader who met with them was Bassam Shaka, the mayor of Nablus, who is in Europe for medical treatment after his legs were amputated as the result of the booby-trapping of his car last May.
Until now Israeli lefist leaders, including those who belong to parties which define themselves as Zionist, have met only with junior PLO officials such as Issam Sartawi, who heads the Vienna bureau of the organization, and Ibrahim Sus in Paris, as well as the late Said Hamami, the PLO representative in London who was murdered two years ago.
Arafat has until now resisted any official meeting with Israelis. But Israeli officials have attached no significance to the change in Arafat's position.
The Sofia meeting, which took place when the Israeli and PLO delegations showed up at an international peace movement conference, reportedly had been meticulously prepared in advance with Shaka serving as intermediary.
As soon as the fact that the meeting took place became known in Israel this morning, angry statements were issued by several Israeli leaders including Yoram Aridor, a deputy minister in Prime Minister Menachem Begin's government, who demanded that Langer be arrested and that parliament be asked to revoke the immunity of the two legislators. The leader of the Labor Party opposition, Shimon Peres, also criticized the meeting, which he said will only be exploited by Israel's enemies.
According to Israeli law, Israielis can be prosecuted for "consorting with the enemy." However, until now, Israeli governments were inclined to look the other way when private citizens met with PLO officials.