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Overshadowed Again

Arafat discusses Palestinian statehood with administration officials, who are more focused on the Kosovo crisis

by James D

March 25, 1999 | 7:00 pm

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat came to town this week, seeking Washington's blessing for Palestinian statehood in return for postponing a unilateral declaration on May 4, when the interim Oslo period expires.

Despite the fears of some Jewish leaders, he didn't get it; instead, he simply came away with new assurances of U.S. friendship and a promise by the Clinton administration to accelerate mediation of the stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks after the May 17 elections in Israel.

A noncommittal Arafat refused to say much about his one-hour session with President Clinton or his plans for May 4; an administration official, briefing reporters, said that U.S. policy, which regards statehood as a matter to be decided as part of the final-status talks, remains unchanged.

The unlucky Arafat, whose visit to Washington last year came on the day the White House sex scandal exploded across the nation's front pages, once again saw his arrival buried under a avalanche of other news.

On Tuesday, as the Palestinian leader was shuttling between Capitol Hill and the White House, officials and reporters alike were focused on the frantic effort to break the negotiating deadlock in Kosovo and, when that failed, to prepare the American people for NATO action against the Serbs.

Arafat was trailed by a crowd of Mideast reporters, but the real action centered on the impending showdown with Serbia.

On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin indicated that Arafat's meetings went about as most observers had predicted. He restated that the United States opposes any unilateral actions by either side, and added that "we would like the permanent-status negotiations to be resumed as soon as possible, move ahead on an accelerated basis. We don't think they should be open-ended."

But he refused to be pinned down on a deadline for completion of the final-status talks -- which were due to be completed by May 4, but which have, in fact, not seriously started.

Administration officials say that they may set tentative target dates for completion of the final-status talks, but reject the notion of a hard-and-fast deadline.

That formula -- greater U.S. activity on the peace process after the Israeli elections and speeded-up final-status talks, the forum originally conceived to consider the nature of the Palestinian entity as well as issues such as Jerusalem, water and refugees -- was the best deal Arafat could get this week, according to Judith Kipper, co-director of the Mideast program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The administration was simply never prepared to mention 'statehood' in any positive way for obvious reasons," she said, referring to pressure from the pro-Israel community.

After the White House session, Arafat refused to provide details about his meetings or his statehood plans, saying only that he was engaged in a series of international "consultations" on the May 4 deadline.

"I listened very carefully to the valuable advice and opinions of President Clinton," he told reporters. "The most important thing that came out of the meeting...is that despite all the difficulties we face today, President Clinton has shown me the determination to move forward in the peace process."

Palestinian officials reiterated that the impending deadline, set by Oslo, has taken on enormous meaning in Gaza and the West Bank, and that the date couldn't simply pass with no tangible signs of progress.

David Kimche, a former division head of the Mossad, said: "I see very little danger that he will actually declare a state on May 4; he would be crazy to do so. But some politicians are trying to create a frantic reaction by saying he will."

Kimche, now on the advisory council of the pro-peace process Israel Policy Forum, said that it's not enough to simply reject any suggestion of statehood.

"You can either say Arafat is the enemy and we have to bludgeon him until he comes back on his hands and knees -- or we have to say he was our enemy, but he's our partner now and we have to work together and try to give him something positive," said Kimche.

The administration was right to restate its opposition to a unilateral declaration, he said.

"At the same time, it's important to include a positive message, to make it clear that they would be supportive of a Palestinian state that came into being through negotiations with Israel," he said. "That's the kind of message Arafat needed to come back with, and it would be completely in compliance with Israel's interests."

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