JERUSALEMArab-Israeli relations took a major step forward Monday, when a zany mix-up resulted in the overnight confinement of PLO leader Yasir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a refrigerated meat locker.
According to reports, the incident occurred when Arafat and Netanyahu–who were in Jerusalem negotiating the possible transfer of several West Bank settlements from Israeli to Palestinian control–got sidetracked into a visit to the butcher shop owned by the Israeli prime minister's gruff-but-lovable Uncle Shlomo.
"We offered to help him hang some freshly delivered sides of beef in the meat locker so he could close the store and go home early," said Arafat, recounting the nutty ordeal that forged a bond between the once-bitter Mideast rivals. "We were the only ones in the building hauling these carcasses into the freezer while the door was propped open with a broom."
When the last side of beef was hung in place, Arafat said, he noticed how messy the meat locker was, observing aloud that "a good cleaning would really do the place some good."
"So Netanyahu, that bumbling fool, says, 'Oh, here's a broom, Yasir,' and grabs the broom holding the meat-locker door open, trapping us inside overnight. I was so mad, all I could do was hit him over the head repeatedly with my burnoose while he shrugged mischievously."
Arafat said that he and his Israeli counterpart did not get along well during the first few hours of the ordeal. "For one thing, Netanyahu was an utter slob, leaving candy and gum wrappers everywhere, while I attempted to keep the locker as tidy as possible, sweeping constantly and even going so far as to improvise an apron out of a discarded potato sack."
According to Netanyahu, relations between the Mideast leaders only grew worse as the night progressed.
"Yasir just wouldn't let up on me. He criticized my Gaza Strip and West Bank policies, questioned my commitment to securing a lasting peace, and made fun of me for the time I switched places with a rock 'n' roll singer who looked just like me. I thought that was really uncalled-for, considering not only his failure to build a consensus between the Palestinian Authority and more extreme right-wing Arab groups like Hamas, but the occasion when he paid his landlady, Mrs. Slotnick, $50 to pretend she was married to him so he could impress an old high-school acquaintance."
The turning point came at approximately 2 a.m., when, despite their strong animosity toward one another, the pair realized that they would have to huddle together to conserve body heat if they were to avoid freezing to death.
"As we huddled together, using an empty sack as a sort of makeshift blanket, we seemed only to get madder and madder at each other. But, without even realizing it, we were actually growing closer and closer."
Moments before Uncle Shlomo returned to the store at 7 a.m., discovering the half-frozen pair, Netanyahu voiced his opinion that they would not survive. "I said to Yasir, 'You know, I don't think we're going to make it.' And Yasir replied, 'Yeah, I guess not. Too bad we couldn't create a true peace between our peoples,' I was touched by that, and I told him I thought he was an okay guy, and he said, 'Yeah, you're not too bad, either.' It was then that Uncle Shlomo opened the door, saving our lives."
"It's lucky Bibi's uncle found us when he did," Arafat said. "When the locker was finally opened, I actually had frost covering my beard and small icicles hanging from my nose, not to mention a pale, bluish cast to my face."
After being rescued and revived with hot cocoa, the warring leaders realized that their traumatic experience had given them a greater understanding of each other.
"What Yasir and I went through together in that freezer made me realize that we're not so different, after all. It made me realize that, like me, he's a man motivated not by hatred for his enemy but by love for his people. I've now forgiven him for all the wrongs he's done me in the past, from the time he authorized a PLO mortar-shelling of a Golan Heights settlement, killing 47 Israeli innocents, to the time he sold me that shampoo that turned my hair green."
Few had expected Arafat and Netanyahu to come together anytime soon, with tensions at an all-time high ever since March 19, when the PLO leader indignantly painted a white line down the middle of Jerusalem's Old City, refusing to acknowledge events on "Netanyahu's side" of the line. It is believed to be the greatest wacky-adventure-driven improvement in international relations since January 1995, when British Prime Minister John Major and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams were trapped in an elevator together with a woman about to give birth.