Administration Welcomes Arafat Even As Critics Seek to Roll Up Mat

Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat came to Washington seeking closer ties with the United States.

By all accounts, he succeeded — despite a concerted effort by Arafat critics to roll up the welcome mat.

In meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, senior members of Congress and other Clinton administration officials, Arafat continued to ingratiate himself with the U.S. government.

Arafat reiterated his support for the peace process while refusing to be pinned down on his threat to declare statehood in less than three months — even without a final settlement with Israel.

Arafat was scheduled to meet informally with President Clinton before his three-day visit ended Thursday.

“I am here, in spite of all they have tried, because I insist on following up the peace process,” Arafat told reporters after a 45-minute meeting with Albright. He was referring to his critics, including those who opposed his invitation to this week’s National Prayer Breakfast.

In spite of the improving relations, Albright delivered a series of blunt messages to the Palestinian leader, according to a State Department official.

The United States wants Arafat to withdraw plans to declare statehood on May 4 and to stop releasing suspected terrorists from Palestinian jails. Discussions are expected to continue later this month when Albright will convene the U.S.- Palestinian Authority joint committee to discuss ways to formally improve ties, officials said.

Arafat refused to discuss his plans for statehood with reporters.

“This cannot be mentioned now because our Palestinian leadership is discussing this matter with all our friends and brothers,” he said.

Israel has said it would annex parts of the West Bank if Arafat declares a state. Fearing the collapse of the peace process, the United States has worked behind the scenes to convince Arafat that the matter belongs in final-status talks.

When pressed what the United States would do if Arafat declares statehood, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart sidestepped the question.

“We don’t believe that this is an issue that lends itself to unilateral statements or declarations. It’s an issue for final-status talks, and that’s where it belongs,” he said Wednesday. “That means what it means. I don’t have any other way of explaining it.”

The issue arose again as members of the House and Senate are gathering support for resolutions calling on the United States not to recognize any unilateral Palestinian declaration.

The prisoner issue came to the fore this week when the State Department rejected Israeli charges that five prisoners freed by the Palestinian Authority are responsible for terrorist attacks that killed Americans. The allegations “are simply not proven by any evidence,” said State Department spokesman James Rubin. But the United States still believes that suspected terrorists are among the dozens of prisoners recently released.

Clinton was urged by 28 members of Congress to insist that Arafat recapture and surrender to the United States the five terrorists Israel accuses of being involved in attacks against American citizens.

Albright discussed the issue with Arafat, according to the State Department, but no details were released.

While Arafat was feted by the Clinton administration and some members of Congress, others still consider the Palestinian leader an unwelcome guest.

Two members of Congress and a handful of Christian leaders vowed to boycott the National Prayer Breakfast scheduled on Thursday because of Arafat’s scheduled appearance.

Arafat’s invitation to the gathering sparked a flood of complaints from evangelical Christian groups opposed to his attendance. Some Jewish groups have also weighed in against his presence.

But the White House protested calls to boycott the prayer breakfast.

“The National Prayer Breakfast has traditionally been a moment in Washington where politics and other issues that are political in nature have not found a way to intrude on. It’s unfortunate that that spirit of reconciliation is being ignored by some and that people have made the decision that the normal politics of Washington should intrude on this,” Lockhart said.

Clinton scheduled a meeting with Arafat after the breakfast. He was also slated to meet with leaders from Albania, Macedonia, and Norway. For his part, Arafat was also scheduled to meet with Leah Rabin, widow of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

On the eve of Arafat’s visit, a member of Congress released a State Department study critical of the Palestinian Authority for supplying schools run by the U.N. agency responsible for Palestinian refugees with anti-Semitic textbooks.

Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.), who requested the study, hailed it for providing a “solid foundation on which we can build towards solving the problem of anti- Semitism” in the textbooks.

Meanwhile, Arafat’s push for statehood got a potential boost from a poll of American voters conducted for the Arab American Institute. Likely American voters support U.S. recognition of Palestinian statehood by a 2-1 margin, according to the Jan. 28 poll. Among the 1,011 respondents, 54 percent responded yes when posed a question on the issue. Some 21 percent said no and 24 percent said they were not sure. The poll has a 3 percent margin of error.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians have resumed their campaign against Israel at the United Nations.

An emergency session of the General Assembly was scheduled to open as early as Friday to discuss Israeli settlement activity.

A draft resolution condemns Israel for settlement construction in the West Bank and for failing to halt work at Har Homa, a controversial housing development in southeastern Jerusalem.

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