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Arafat Breaks Little New Ground at News Conference in Geneva

Hours before the United States announced its decision Wednesday to open talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasir Arafat held a much-anticipated news conference at which he appeared to break little new ground, disappointing many of his supporters and sympathizers.

Expectations had been building up all day as Arafat’s news conference was repeatedly postponed. The PLO chairman and some 30 members of its executive committee were closeted for 10 hours in a suite at the posh Intercontinental Hotel.

They were presumed to be arguing fiercely over whether Arafat should take the “extra step” that could pave the way for immediate, albeit low-level, contacts with the U.S. government, for the first time ever.

But when Arafat finally appeared to address the assembled news media, it seemed as if no “historic decision” had been made.

The PLO chief repeated the positions he stated Tuesday in his address to the U.N. General Assembly, which the Americans found vaguely promising but inadequate.

Despite reported urgings by many Western and Arab diplomats, Arafat appeared to be no more explicit in his recognition of Israel’s right to exist.

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When questioned point-blank on that subject, he replied, obviously irritated, “I don’t want to go through a striptease. Read my statement.”

And while he reaffirmed support for U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which implicitly recognize Israel, he also affirmed General Assembly Resolution 181 of Nov. 29, 1947, which partitioned Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states.

Arafat insisted that neither he nor anyone else can stop the intifada, the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which just entered its second year. He implied that its end cannot be a condition for peace talks, because it would end only when the talks begin.

Ambassador Vernon Walters, the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, addressed the General Assembly earlier in the day, delivering a speech that seemed tough on the Israelis and Palestinians alike.

“We must tell the parties that their dispute is resolvable,” he said, stressing that the United States “remains an active, committed partner in the search for a comprehensive settlement achieved through negotiations.”

The American envoy added, “For Israel, the choice is clear, albeit difficult. In order to achieve the security it deserves and requires, Israel must face up to the need for withdrawal from occupied territories and to the need to accommodate legitimate Palestinian political rights.”

The details, he stressed, would be the subjects of negotiations.

“For the Palestinians the choice is equally clear and equally difficult,” Walters continued.

“In order to achieve the legitimate political rights they deserve and require, Palestinian demands will have to accommodate the reality of Israel’s existence and security needs, and they will have to commit themselves to negotiations with Israel.”

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