Arafat, Rabin to sign accord in Washington White House visit confers new status on PLO chief F ISRAELI-PLO PEACE TALKS

September 12, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Two of the bitterest foes in Mideast history -- Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin -- will stand together as partners tomorrow at the historic White House signing of a peace accord between Palestinians and Israelis, the Clinton administration announced yesterday.

The occasion grants Mr. Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization chairman who two weeks ago was officially a nonperson in Israeli and U.S. eyes, the symbolic stature of a head of government, complete with an arrival tonight at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.

More important, it enshrines the former guerrilla chief, who in the past sought to destroy the Jewish state with terror and armed struggle, as one of the world's top peacemakers.

Mr. Rabin's and Mr. Arafat's presence gives the South Lawn ceremony the epochal importance of the Camp David accords signed by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat almost exactly 15 years ago.

"We're living in truly revolutionary times," President Clinton said in his weekly radio address yesterday.

"I think it will heighten the atmosphere and reinforce the determination for peace," Mr. Clinton told reporters in Houston, adding that the pact "has the potential to change the way Muslims, Christians and Jews relate to each other."

The pact offers a framework for Israeli withdrawal from much of the occupied territories, starting with the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho, and a transfer of substantial governing authority to Palestinians.

A number of issues remain to be negotiated, and the burning questions of Israeli settlements and sovereignty over East Jerusalem await so-called "final status" negotiations, still up to two years away.

The Israeli-Palestinian "declaration of principles," which will be signed tomorrow, represents a bold political move by each leader: Mr. Rabin to deal directly with the PLO, and Mr. Arafat to postpone, perhaps indefinitely, the Palestinian dream of a full-fledged state with Jerusalem as its capital.

The negotiations, overseen for Israel by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, developed in secret under Norwegian sponsorship.

Israel and the PLO formally recognized each other early Friday in an exchange of letters in which Mr. Arafat vowed to exert control over violent PLO factions and to resolve disputes with Israel through peaceful negotiation.

Prelude to meeting

In the ensuing hours, Mr. Clinton authorized renewed diplomatic contact with the PLO and signaled publicly to Mr. Arafat that he would be welcome at the White House as head of the Palestinian delegation at the signing.

Previously, senior U.S. officials had been nervously evasive when asked if Mr. Arafat would be welcome and said they expected Mr. Peres and an Arafat subordinate to be there.

An appearance with Mr. Arafat poses political risks back home for Mr. Rabin, who is already asking Israelis to make an immense psychological transition toward living as peaceful neighbors with Palestinians.

But Mr. Arafat made clear in comments to the news media from his headquarters in Tunis, Tunisia, that he wanted to come, and aides later pressed the issue.

On Friday night, in the first-ever high-level diplomatic contact between the PLO and the United States, Arafat adviser Nabil Sha'ath and another PLO official, Akram Haniya, met at the State Department with Dennis Ross, peace talks coordinator, and Edward Djerejian, an assistant secretary of state.

The Palestinians informed the Americans "that their delegation would be headed on Monday" by the PLO chairman, U.S. spokesman Michael McCurry said.

Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, reached at home with the news, called President Clinton in Houston. Mr. Clinton instructed the secretary to tell Mr. Rabin that "the United States hoped he would come" as well.

At 1 a.m. yesterday, Mr. Christopher reached Mr. Rabin. "You know he is a very taciturn and businesslike person," the secretary told Israel television a few hours later. "I simply told him that he would be welcome here. The United States hoped he would come, and he said, 'I will come.' "

Plus for Israel

Israeli Housing Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer cited at least one plus for Israel.

"The appearance of Rabin next to Arafat at this level not only removes many doubts and removes the psychological wall, but strongly commits Yasser Arafat to every word and letter written in the process," he told Israel radio, according to the Associated Press.

Until a few weeks ago, successive Israeli governments have vowed publicly never to deal directly with Mr. Arafat, labeling him a terrorist, and the United States has never formally recognized him as the leader of the Palestinian movement for self-determination. The previous U.S.-PLO dialogue, from late 1988 to 1990 was conducted at the ambassadorial level.

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