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Peace Push: Palestinians, Israel Now Find More in Common

A JEWISH extremist hoping to halt the Israeli-Palestinian peace process by assassinating Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin may have caused just the opposite.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders are both pushing forward with the plan that Mr. Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat initiated more than a year ago.

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And a public opinion poll published Friday said that 74 percent of Israelis endorse the government's pursuance of peace with Palestinians. Prior to the assassination of Rabin on Nov. 4, the Israeli public was about evenly divided over his peace policy.

Acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who faces a daunting task in uniting the country, broadening the base of his teetering Labor coalition, and pushing ahead with the Mideast peace process, has made clear that the Israeli-Palestinian accord will remain on schedule.

Withdrawal begins

Israeli soldiers were to begin withdrawing from the West Bank town of Jenin today. And six neighboring Palestinian villages were due to be handed over to Palestinian rule at the same time, as 1,000 Palestinian police were to replace withdrawing Israeli soldiers.

The Israeli withdrawal from five other Palestinian towns, and a partial withdrawal from the violence-wracked town of Hebron, is expected to be completed by Dec. 20.

Rabin's assassination also has set back the cause of the Israeli right-wing and exposed deep divisions in Israeli society.

The most startling development was the unexpected visit on Friday by Mr. Arafat to Leah Rabin, widow of the soldier-turned-leader.

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Arafat, who stayed away from Rabin's funeral for security reasons, travelled to Tel Aviv to offer his condolences to Mrs. Rabin.

In the exchange, Arafat described her late husband as "a hero of peace" and said that he had lost a "personal friend." Mrs. Rabin said her late husband had come to regard Arafat as "a partner in peace."

In an earlier television interview, Mrs. Rabin made a statement that has reverberated around the Arab world.

"Sometimes I find that despite the fact that we are Jews, and the religious extremists are Jews, we could more easily find a common language with the Palestinians and Arabs rather than with [Jewish extremists] because we live on two different planets," Mrs. Rabin said.

In another boost for the peace process, negotiators from Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, announced they will meet in Cairo this month to finalize an agreement to end Hamas attacks on Israel and open the way for its participation in Palestinian elections.

"The dialogue has reached a phase that can be termed a big step on the way to reconciliation," PA Finance Minister Zuhdi Nashashibi told reporters on Saturday.

Hamas leaders have brushed aside fears that a political decision to take part in the elections will not be observed by Hamas leaders based in neighboring states and by its military wing Izzedin al-Qassam.

"There is no difference between Hamas inside [Gaza and the West Bank] and Hamas outside. Hamas is one unit," Gaza-based Hamas leader and publisher of the pro-Hamas newspaper al-Watan Imad Falouji told the Monitor in an interview last week. "If Hamas takes a political decision, the military wing will be equally committed."

Palestinian resistance

Hamas, which along with the smaller and more extreme Islamic Jihad, has been at the forefront of efforts to sabotage the peace process and have claimed responsibility for several of the suicide bombings against Israeli targets that have rocked the peace over the past 12 months.

Mr. Falouji said Hamas had a good relationship with the Islamic Jihad, whose Damascus-based leader Fathi Shikaki was allegedly assassinated by the Israeli Secret Service in Malta two weeks ago.

"We have the same goals, but we have different methods," said Falouji of the purely military Jihad. Hamas runs a wide network of social programs.

Last week Arafat included Falouji in his delegation to the Middle East and North Africa Economic Summit in Amman. They also held talks with Hamas leaders based in the Jordanian capital.

Arafat's talks with Hamas, which have continued behind-the-scenes for most of the last year but intensely over the past few months, are regarded by diplomats and politicians as vital to the holding of a peaceful Palestinian poll.

This weekend, Hamas leaders told their followers to register for elections, a clear sign that the militant group intends to take part in the poll.

Yesterday, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza eligible to vote in the first Palestinian elections scheduled for Jan. 20 began registering to vote under the supervision of 76 foreign observers - 66 from the European Union countries and 10 from the United States.

The election for an 82-seat Palestinian National Council will take place under international supervision and will mark a watershed in the creation of an autonomous Palestinian entity in the West Bank and Gaza - which Palestinian leaders see as the forerunner of a Palestinian state.

Thousands of Israelis were expected to turn out last night at a massive memorial rally for the slain Israeli leader. His widow was to confirm the renaming of the Kings of Israel Square, where he was assassinated, to the Yitzhak Rabin Square.

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