WASHINGTON, March 3 (JTA) — Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat has taken his case against Israel’s planned construction on Har Homa directly to President Clinton. During an hourlong Oval Office meeting Monday, Arafat pleaded with Clinton to pressure Israel to call off groundbreaking for the new Jewish neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem that was scheduled for this week. Arafat did not get the explicit condemnation he was seeking, but he did get direct criticism. “I would prefer the decision not have been made because I don’t think it builds confidence; I think it builds mistrust,” Clinton told reporters before the meeting with Arafat. “I wish that it had not been made,” Clinton said, in his first personal statements on the issue. Once again, Arafat’s visit took place amid mounting tensions in the region. His original agenda of finding ways to improve the Palestinian economy was overshadowed by Har Homa. “This is also a difficult moment,” Clinton said, recalling Arafat’s last visit here, which came soon after Palestinian police officers and Israelis traded gunfire in the wake of the opening to a new entrance to a Jerusalem tunnel. Expressing an air of optimism, Clinton added, “I think we can work through it and go forward.” In an apparent nod to Palestinian concerns over Har Homa, U.S. State Department officials in briefings began to use the Arabic name for Har Homa, which is Jabal Abu Ghenaim. After the Oval Office meeting, Arafat’s second alone with Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright huddled with the Palestinian leader for about one hour to discuss the Har Homa project. “Secretary Albright repeated probably four or five times in the discussion over lunch today that the United States was disappointed that this initiative was taken by the Israeli government,” said Nicholas Burns, State Department spokesman. Albright also told Arafat that she hopes that the disagreement about the construction can be settled peacefully, Burns said. Burns also hailed Arafat and his deputies for trying “to cool passions on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” During the working lunch, Arafat and Albright agreed to meet several times a year as part of a new joint U.S.-Palestinian committee to ensure that cooperative plans are carried out. Exactly what kind of cooperative plans the two sides have in mind were not spelled out. On Tuesday, Arafat was scheduled to travel to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress. More than 150 lawmakers planned to present him with a letter requesting a timetable for implementation of commitments made by the Palestinians in the Hebron accord. The letter specifically asks for a date when the Palestinians will complete the process of rewriting their covenant. The Palestinians initially agreed to take such a step after voting to amend the portions of the covenant that call for the destruction of Israel. Arafat also was scheduled to meet with members of the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday. The Security Council planned to discuss the issue of Har Homa this week. Arafat was also scheduled to meet with a small group of representatives of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations before heading to Texas to meet with former President George Bush.
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