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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Netanyahu, Arafat Talk at Ice-Breaking Summit

JERUSALEM -- Israel and the PLO, jolted by a boost to the fortunes of the Islamic movement Hamas, held their first summit for eight months Wednesday in what U.S. envoy Dennis Ross billed as a fresh start for peacemaking.

There was no indication that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat had bridged fundamental differences at their snap summit, held at the Erez crossing point between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

But both sides hailed the meeting, the first since February before peacemaking ground to a halt, as beneficial to rebuilding a relationship paralyzed over Jewish settlement building on occupied land and Hamas suicide bombings.

Ross, who joined Netanyahu and Arafat after their face-to-face talks, said many differences still had to be overcome, but he described the ice-breaking summit as "a very good meeting."

"I think at one point they also emphasized that they saw this as a new beginning between the leaders and indeed a new beginning for the [peace] process," he said.

He said the leaders had agreed that contacts should resume on "all levels between the two sides."

"And indeed they agreed that the leaders themselves should meet on a regular basis," he told reporters.

The meeting took the spotlight off an embarrassing botched Israeli assassination bid against a Hamas leader in Jordan and the return to self-ruled Gaza on Monday of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, freed from jail by Israel to extricate its hit men.

The triumphant return of Yassin, figurehead of Arafat's most potent domestic opposition and a symbol for Israelis of Islamist extremism, has put pressure on both the Palestinian leader and Netanyahu.

Their talks at Erez, held in the dead of night, suggested a shared interest in strengthening their positions.

David Bar-Illan, Netanyahu's communications chief, called the hastily arranged summit "friendly and cordial."

"Everybody is treating the relationship now very differently, I believe ... and the talks are continuing in a very different mood," he said. "I think it has achieved its purpose but if anyone has wild expectations of the results, I think they'll be disappointed."

An adviser to Arafat, Nabil Abu Rdainah, said Israel had recommitted itself to implementing interim peace deals. The summit, he said, had lent new momentum to the peace process.

Substantive peace talks have been deadlocked since March when Israel broke ground on a Jewish settlement in Arab east Jerusalem, seen by Palestinians as capital of a future state.

The crisis has deepened with the killing of 24 Israelis in three suicide attacks by Hamas, which opposes PLO peace deals with Israel and the existence of the Jewish state.

Israeli officials said the focus of the summit had been on fighting "terror" -- Netanyahu's condition for progress on the peace front. Palestinians want a halt to Israeli settlement building -- an issue Bar-Illan said "wasn't even brought up."

The Erez summit capped two stormy weeks that began when Israel slipped two agents into Jordan to murder Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal. They were arrested after bungling an attempt to poison him.

Netanyahu persuaded Jordan to let the two agents go by agreeing to free Yassin from a life prison sentence for ordering attacks against Israelis and free up to 70 other Arab prisoners.

Government critics have attacked Netanyahu for poor judgment in sending agents to Jordan, Israel's friendliest Arab ally. Yassin's release has also raised questions of how Netanyahu can expect Arafat to continue cracking down on Hamas militants.

Arafat met and embraced Yassin in Gaza on Tuesday, when both called for Palestinian unity.