WASHINGTON (May. 1)
While President Clinton welcomed Yasser Arafat to Washington with open arms this week, members of Congress continued to cast a skeptical gaze at the Palestinian Authority president.
Arafat claimed his American trophy for amending the Palestine National Council covenant in the form of a bilateral meeting Wednesday morning with Clinton.
The council voted overwhelmingly last week to amend those parts of its covenant that call for Israel’s destruction.
But the night before, 99 senators took a swipe at Arafat by calling for the extradition of Abul Abbas, the mastermind of the 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking.
Israel had allowed Abbas to enter Gaza for last week’s PNC meeting.
During his visit, Arafat rejected the call for extradition. Instead, he praised Abbas during a brief exchange with reporters in the Oval Office.
“We should not forget that Abul Abbas came and attended the PNC and voted to change the covenant of the PLO, and to support the peace process,” Arafat said.
The response drew a sharp retort from Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), who sponsored the Senate bill calling for Abbas’ extradition to stand trial for the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, the American Jew killed during the hijacking of the cruise ship.
“We cannot build peace on a foundation of terrorism,” D’Amato said, adding that Abbas “murdered a man confined to a wheelchair. Justice demands he be turned over to the United States for this crime.”
The Senate move appears to be largely symbolic, however. Clinton administration officials said there would be no request for Abbas’ extradition.
The statute of limitations under which Abbas would have been prosecuted expired “before the Clinton administration came into office,” said David Johnson, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
Clinton and Arafat did not discuss Abbas during their 45-minute session in the Oval Office, which included Vice President Al Gore.
The conversation focused on the peace process, with the president congratulating Arafat on amending the covenant.
“Under difficult circumstances,” Arafat kept his commitment to amend the covenant, Clinton said. “I think that was applauded by all Americans.”
When asked later in the day at a National Press Club luncheon how he persuaded the Palestine Liberation Organization to amend the covenant, Arafat said, “You think it was easy?”
“It took me months of negotiations,” he said. “We’re not talking about five or six hours, but of more than 200 hours of negotiations.”
But not everyone in Washington believes that the PLO has satisfied its commitment on the covenant, as called for under its peace accords with Israel.
Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) said the vote does not satisfy the PLO’s pledge to amend the covenant, because a new covenant has not yet been written.
With this in mind, Gilman has continued to hold up $13 million of U.S. aid slated to go to the Palestinians. As chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Gilman has prevented the State Department from releasing the payment.
White House officials recently turned up the heat on Gilman, but so far have been unsuccessful in freeing the money.
“I hope” that Gilman releases the money, Arafat said at the press club.
Much of the attention focused on Arafat’s visit centered around the opening of finalstatus talks with Israel, which are set to begin this weekend in Taba, Egypt.
When asked whether the United States would now support the Palestinian call for statehood, Clinton said, “I do not believe the United States can serve any useful purpose by getting in the middle of decisions which have to be resolved by the parties themselves.”
In fact, the White House continues to substitute the word “Palestinian” for “Palestine” on all official documents. For example, the PLO is referred to as the “Palestinian Liberation Organization,” rather than the official “Palestine Liberation Organization” on all White House communications.
Arafat appeared comfortable in the spotlight of his official visit and even shaved his characteristic stubble for the White House meeting.
Arafat used the visits to elicit public support for his call on Israel to lift the closure on the Palestinian areas imposed after the first in a string of suicide bombings in February and March.
“How can you have peace and live comfortably when your neighbor faces starvation?” Arafat said at the press club. “This will reflect negatively on the peace process.”
Arafat also met with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher during his visit and was scheduled to address a town hall meeting of Arab Americans on Wednesday night.