Arafat has day reveling in unfamiliar celebrity PLO chief calls himself 'pragmatic' A DAY OF "HISTORY AND HOPE"

September 14, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Banned on these shores for nearly two decades, a jubilant Yasser Arafat spent his first visit to the nation's capital basking in a city and an occasion that offered him long-sought legitimacy.

From his historic handshake with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at yesterday's White House signing ceremony to an afternoon meeting with Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher to an evening appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live," the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in his first trip to Washington, made the rounds and received visitors like the most respected of visiting dignitaries.

Although he shared the spotlight yesterday with the Israeli leader with whom he forged the peace pact, the day clearly belonged to the diminutive former guerrilla leader, who has not set foot on ++ U.S. soil since he addressed the United Nations in 1974.

And he beamed all the way through his trip to Washington, shaking hands with every official he could find, holding court every chance he got, appearing on network evening newscasts and ABC's "Nightline" as well as Larry King.

When asked at the State Department yesterday if it was the happiest day of his political life, the Palestinian leader responded: "It is one of the most important days."

Interviewed by Mr. King last night, Mr. Arafat portrayed himself not as a changed or softened man, but as a savvy leader who, like Mr. Rabin, understands the political realities of the post Cold War era. "I am a pragmatic man," he said. "I am not in it for myself. I am in it for the sake of my people. . . . We are in a new order of the end of the Cold War. We have to understand the rules."

Crowds of Palestinian supporters have hovered outside the Washington hotel where Mr. Arafat has stayed since Sunday night. And the man who's engendered mystery, anger and distrust received a steady stream of callers and visitors there -- everyone from former President Jimmy Carter, who brokered the Camp David Middle East peace agreement in 1978, to the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson to, last night, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev.

In one way, the images of Mr. Arafat, whose face has been synonymous with terrorism and murder for the last 40 years, were familiar. He dressed for the momentous occasion in his usual military tunic and signature black-and-white kaffiyeh, an Arabic headdress draped over his right shoulder.

But the role -- and the surroundings -- were anything but familiar.

In a tableau that seemed nearly surreal, the 64-year-old leader shared the South Lawn podium with Mr. Rabin, President Clinton and other officials during yesterday morning's signing ceremony.

Speaking to an audience of about 3,000 gathered on the White House lawn, he was accorded the same respect and attention as Prime Minister Rabin, whose speech immediately preceded his. The loudest applause came when, after the peace pact had been signed, a gleeful Mr. Arafat extended his hand to a far more solemn Mr. Rabin, who accepted his longtime enemy's salutation after a brief hesitation.

Although Mr. Arafat had been escorted to the White House Blue Room for introductions to administration officials and spouses and had a 10-minute impromptu meeting with Mr. Clinton after the signing ceremony, the White House was careful not to give him the same fanfare and protocol it reserves for heads of state. And Mr. Arafat's security has been provided by the State Department's Office of Dignitary Protection rather than the U.S. Secret Service, since he's not an official head of state.

But Mr. Clinton led both Mr. Rabin and Mr. Arafat into the crowd after the signing ceremony where the grinning Palestinian leader shook hands with everyone from the outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen. Colin L. Powell, to former Secretary of State James A. Baker III to Chelsea Clinton.

"He's the man of the hour," said Ed Leavy, a Baltimore immigration lawyer who represented the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith in 1974 in its successful effort to restrict Mr. Arafat's visit to this country to a sole appearance before the U.N. General Assembly.

Mr. Leavy said he was thrilled at the contrast between the 1974 visit -- at which Mr. Arafat flaunted a gun on his hip -- and yesterday's display. "Somebody we fought to keep out of this country, we now welcome. It's very heartwarming. Can Arafat be made a man of peace? Let's hope so."

After yesterday's White House ceremony, Mr. Arafat taped several TV interviews at his hotel and then proceeded to the State Department -- another building that would have been pointedly out of his reach only a week ago. There, he posed for more photos and sat opposite Mr. Christopher, again appearing as ebullient as the Perrier that sat on the long rectangular table.

He thanked the secretary of state "from my heart" for giving him the opportunity "to be here in this building, which means the start of good relations."

Today, Mr. Arafat continues his public relations bonanza with a speech at the National Press Club here and a meeting in New York with U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali before heading back to the Middle East. Once back, the first order of business, he said on television last night, was to contact all the opposition and tell his own people "this is the new dawn."

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