Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak today broke the studied silence he has maintained since his election, criticizing comments by President Clinton on the return of Palestinian refugees and arranging a prompt meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Barak and Arafat spoke by telephone, according to a spokesman for the new Israeli leader, and agreed to meet soon after Barak takes office and presents his government to the Knesset, or parliament, an event scheduled for Wednesday.
Coming two days after Barak sealed deals with center, left and religious political parties for a broad and ostensibly pro-peace governing coalition, setting up the talk with Arafat seems to indicate Israel's new leader is eager to use the momentum of his victory in May to reinvigorate peace discussions.
"We still don't have dates . . . but it is going to be soon after the government is presented to the Knesset," spokesman David Zisso said of the Barak-Arafat meeting.
That was likely to be welcome news in Arab capitals and in Washington, where officials have been concerned that Barak might focus on restarting peace talks with Syria at the expense of early discussions with the Palestinians. U.S. officials in particular hoped the newly elected prime minister would confer with Arafat before a planned trip to meet with Clinton in the middle of the month.
As if to set boundaries on his efforts to improve relations with the United States that had eroded under his predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu, Barak's office also criticized Clinton for saying during a news conference Thursday that he wished Palestinians "felt free and were free to live wherever they like, wherever they want to live."
The statement, and the reaction to it, underscored the sensitivity here about the future of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who live outside Israel, many in ragged camps, and also outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip, lands that gradually are being transferred to Palestinian control. The "right of return" for families who left or were removed from the land when Israel was created in 1948, or during subsequent wars and conflicts, is among the most difficult issues Israeli and Palestinian negotiators must resolve in any final peace settlement.
Although U.S. officials rushed to say Clinton's remarks did not indicate a change in policy and were given in the context of a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, the words struck a nerve here.
"President Clinton's stance on the matter of the right of return, as it might be understood from his remarks yesterday in Washington, is unacceptable to Barak," said Merav Parsi-Tzadok, spokeswoman for the Labor Party leader. "It's apparently a misunderstanding, and it would have been appropriate for the administration to clarify and correct it."
Palestinian leaders said there is no reason to think Clinton's remarks were meant to indicate he supports a return of Arab refugees to Israeli lands. "We won't ask the Israelis to commit suicide," cabinet member Ziad Abu Zayyad said in an interview with Israeli radio.