Tue, 15 Aug 2000

Arafat told to make peace before declaring state

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters): President Yasser Arafat's plans to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state, seem to have won only lukewarm support from Arab and European leaders who say he should do it only as part of a peace deal with Israel.

Officials and analysts said Arafat's more than two-week international tour had also failed to win the overt backing he had sought for an Arab summit or a meeting of the Muslim states over his stand on Jerusalem.

Palestinian officials have said Arafat intends to declare a Palestinian state after the Sept. 13 deadline for concluding a peace treaty with Israel, even if no agreement is forged.

Arafat has won pledges from key Arab and Muslim leaders not to put public pressure on him to accept Israeli proposals on Jerusalem that would contradict Palestinian or Arab Muslim and Christian aspirations, they said.

But Palestinian political analyst Ghassan al-Khatib said Arafat had expressed disappointment with the Arab leaders' reaction during a cabinet meeting last week.

"Arafat did not take everything he wanted from the Arabs. He did get backing for his negotiating position over Jerusalem, but he didn't get the concrete steps he had asked for," Khatib told Reuters.

Without such clear public backing, Arafat is vulnerable to criticism -- either if he makes compromises to reach a deal or if he refuses to compromise and is widely blamed for blocking an agreement and any violence that might follow.

The lack of support for his calls for an Arab summit reflect the weakness of Arab leaders facing political problems at home and unwilling to risk committing themselves. Yet Arafat has made clear their overt support is vital.

"God willing, with the help of our friends in Islamic and international communities we will achieve a true peace," he told reporters during a visit to Iran on Thursday.

Arafat has visited 17 states in 18 days in an attempt to explain his position during last month's U.S.-brokered Camp David summit which foundered over the question of Jerusalem after 15 days of intensive talks.

Israel and the United States blamed the summit's failure on Arafat for rejecting Israeli-U.S. proposals to divide the walled Old City but keep the al-Aqsa mosque, Islam's third holiest shrine, under Israeli occupation.

Arafat in return accused Israel of torpedoing the summit for refusing to end its occupation of Arab East Jerusalem.

Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in a move not recognized internationally. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future independent state, but Israel regards the whole of the city as its "united and eternal capital".

Palestinian officials said that despite Arafat's public statements, he will declare a Palestinian state after the Sept. 13 deadline for concluding a peace treaty with Israel. But the Palestinian leader has come under increasing pressure to delay statehood in order to give peace a chance.

Emerging from talks with officials in Norway last week, Arafat said: "We have received advice from many friends asking us to delay the declaration of a Palestinian state."

Arafat began his whirlwind tour after he was criticized by the United States and Israel for being inflexible at the Camp David summit. He left Gaza on Sunday for China, Indonesia, and Japan.

Salim al-Zaanoun, speaker of the Palestinian parliament in exile, made clear on Thursday that Arafat had encountered a mixed reaction during the tour, particularly over his plans to declare a state even if he has no peace deal with Israel.

Zanoun told a news conference in Gaza that some European and Arab leaders had asked him to delay the declaration.

"They asked the president to give negotiations (with Israel) another chance in order not to get a situation which Israel would resist," Zanoun said.

The United States and Israel have also launched diplomatic tours. They have trailed around the Middle East in Arafat's wake in an attempt to counter his version of events and win world public opinion to their side.

"An American envoy was either following Arafat or preceding him to these countries to wipe out (the impact of) any Arab reaction," Palestinian political analyst Mohammad Hamza said.

A senior Palestinian official said last week, "Arafat sent a letter to U.S. President Bill Clinton complaining that the U.S. envoy, Edward Walker, was telling world leaders false information about Arafat's positions and would like him to stop."

Arafat also made a tour in 1999 to lobby support for a previous deadline for declaring independence.

He was advised then by Arab and European leaders to delay taking any unilateral step until after Israel's election in May 1999, when Barak was elected to replace right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu.

Hamza said Arafat had been let down by Arab leaders at a critical time in Middle East history.

"Maps would be redrawn, not only those of Palestine and Israel but the entire map of the Middle East," he said.