News Analysis: As Clinton Awaits Arafat Visit, Congress Rejects Unilateral Move
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News Analysis: As Clinton Awaits Arafat Visit, Congress Rejects Unilateral Move

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If pictures speak louder than words, photos of President Clinton’s third meeting in three months with Yasser Arafat will roar.

The Palestinian Authority chairman, scheduled to meet with Clinton on Tuesday, has embarked on a world tour aimed at securing pledges of support for a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood.

Although White House officials say Arafat won’t get support for a unilateral declaration, the meeting is likely to boost his prominence among other world leaders and his own people.

“The visit itself is a reward — the fact that he’s getting treated as he is with official recognition equivalent as a head of state,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

As the Clinton administration grapples with its exact response to Arafat, Congress has overwhelmingly rejected such a unilateral Palestinian move and is calling on the administration not to recognize such a state.

Arafat has threatened to unilaterally declare a state on the territory under his control on May 4, which marks the end of the interim peace period established by the Oslo accords.

But peace talks have repeatedly been stalled since that date was set. Issues of borders and statehood were supposed to be addressed in final-status talks, which have barely gotten off the ground.

As a result, Israel and many of its supporters view any such declaration a violation of the accords.

They point to a 1993 letter sent only four days before the signing of the Declaration of Principles in which Arafat promised then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to resolve all problems through negotiations.

“The PLO commits itself to the Middle East peace process, and to a peaceful resolution of the conflict between the two sides, and declares that all outstanding issues relating to permanent status will be resolved through negotiations,” Arafat wrote.

The issue by and large is not the establishment of a Palestinian state — even most Israelis believe that such a state is inevitable.

For its part, the administration, while clear in its opposition to any unilateral declaration, has, on several occasions, come close to endorsing the more general principle of Palestinian statehood.

Senior U.S. officials have told Israelis that Clinton will not undercut final- status negotiations by promising Arafat future U.S. recognition for a state or by agreeing to a date when such a declaration would be acceptable.

Instead. most observers predict that Clinton will reiterate U.S. policy that a Palestinian state can only emerge through negotiations with Israel.

At the same time, Clinton is also promising to work toward accelerated final- status talks with a precise schedule to begin after the Israeli election, which is scheduled for May 17.

Such a plan has been supported by Israel’s three major candidates for prime minister.

But many activists express concern that Clinton will give Arafat vague pledges intended to be interpreted to support Palestinian statehood.

As he tours the world, Arafat appears willing to compromise on the May 4 date – – even considering a new Dec. 31 deadline — but only in exchange for pledges of support for a recognition at that time.

These bargaining tactics have enraged Israel and her American supporters and have generated much concern on Capitol Hill.

In an effort to ensure that Clinton unequivocally opposes any unilateral declaration — regardless of the date — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, turned to Congress to deliver a blunt message.

“We strongly believe that if Chairman Arafat is going to threaten to breach, both in letter and spirit, the most fundamental element of the peace process, then one cannot claim that the Palestinian are acting in good faith,” said Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director.

Both the House and Senate delivered, overwhelmingly passing resolutions opposing any declaration of statehood that does not emerge through negotiations with Israel.

“United States opposition to any unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood should be made clear and unambiguous,” said the Senate resolution, which passed 98-1 on March 11.

Calling such a declaration, “a most fundamental violation of the Oslo process,” the Senate called on Clinton to “unequivocally assert” that such a state “would not be recognized by the United States.”

During debate on the Senate floor, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), one of the key sponsors of the resolution, summed up the view of many of his colleagues when he said, “We should not pay Mr. Arafat for not doing something which he should not have threatened to do in the first place.”

“It cannot be resolved through force or fiat. The prospect of peace in the Middle East is just too important to risk in a game of political chicken. If the Palestinian leadership is truly serious about peace, they will abandon the prospect of unilateral statehood,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

An identical House measure passed on Tuesday by a huge margin of 379-24, with two members opting not take a position and voting present.

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