Clinton Tells Arafat He’ll Speed Up Talks, Discourages May 4 Declaration

The Palestinian Authority will receive no public reward from the United States if Yasser Arafat backs off of a threat to unilaterally declare statehood.

Instead, President Clinton promised to speed up the pursuit of a final Israeli- Palestinian peace settlement, with the goal of reaching an agreement within one year. Clinton offered to bring together Arafat and the winner of Israel’s upcoming election within six months for talks on a final-status agreement that would resolve some of the toughest issues, including Jerusalem, final borders, settlements and statehood.

Clinton’s pledge, which came in a statement from the White House and in a private letter that was to be delivered to Arafat, fell far short of the Palestinians’ goal of a clear endorsement of their right to declare a state.

Arafat has threatened to declare a state May 4, the end of the interim period established by the 1993 Oslo accords.

In response, Israel threatened to annex parts of the West Bank, which could lead to violent confrontations with Palestinians.

Arafat has toured more than 20 countries, asking for support of a future declaration of statehood in exchange for a delay of a unilateral declaration. The United States was one of a few countries that did not endorse the Palestinians’ “right to self-determination.”

Clinton stopped short of that goal on a visit to the Gaza Strip last year.

“Israel must recognize the right of the Palestinians to aspire to live free today, tomorrow and forever,” Clinton said.

White House officials said similar language would be included in the letter to Arafat, which calls for the Palestinians to determine their future on their land. Clinton will also put in writing an earlier pledge to increase the “level of relations” between the Palestinians and the United States, officials said.

Israeli officials and many Jewish activists feared that Clinton would reward Arafat in some way for delaying a declaration of statehood, but White House officials said this week that there would be no reward.

The United States also told Arafat that it unequivocally opposes unilateral actions, including a declaration of statehood, as well as Israeli settlement construction on the West Bank.

“If Israelis and Palestinians are to reach an agreement, it is essential that they do their part to create a serious, fair and credible environment for negotiations,” said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.

“Palestinians and Israelis must avoid unilateral acts and declarations that prejudge or predetermine issues reserved for permanent-status negotiations,” Lockhart said.

The United States called on both parties to “engage in accelerated permanent- status negotiations, and to rededicate themselves to the goal of reaching an agreement within a year.”

The talks cannot be “open-ended,” Lockhart said.

But within an hour after release of the White House statement, Clinton administration officials were already distancing themselves from the one-year time frame.

“I wouldn’t call it a deadline, I would call it an objective and a sense of what is possible if there is a good-faith effort on both sides,” State Department spokesman James Rubin told reporters.

“Frankly, if the parties don’t do what they need to do to create” a positive environment and “don’t demonstrate a serious commitment to resolving the issues, even 20 years wouldn’t be enough.”

Rubin refused to specify when the one-year period would start.

Palestinian officials refused to comment until after they receive the Clinton letter.

Israeli officials in Washington hailed the White House statement but remained concerned about the possibility of private promises in the Clinton-Arafat leter that has not been released.

Seeking to end such speculation, Rubin said, “Our private and public positions are the same.”

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