Christopher, Palestinians to confer in West Bank

May 16, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, in a move that will bolster Palestinian hopes for an independent state in the West Bank, said yesterday that he will travel to Jericho this week to meet with the newly established Palestinian self-governing authority there.

By making the unusual visit, only days after a Palestinian police force replaced Israelis in the West Bank town, Mr. Christopher said he hopes to boost the Palestinians' confidence and trumpet the first concrete results of their long-running peace negotiations.

He also intends to urge them to organize their administration quickly, without waiting for Yasser Arafat and other Palestine Liberation Organization chieftains to arrive, aides said. Indeed, the visit appears aimed partly at boosting the prestige of moderate West Bank members of the Palestinian Authority, whom Mr. Christopher praised for joining the new governing group.

"I think it'll be very significant for the Palestinian leadership," Mr. Christopher told reporters traveling with him to Damascus, where he was meeting with Syrian President Hafez el Assad.

Officially, the Clinton administration still holds to a long-standing U.S. policy of opposing an independent Palestinian state. But the symbolism of Mr. Christopher's visit -- an official call with Palestinian flags flying and security provided by PLO police -- will inescapably look like a form of early recognition for a future republic of Palestine.

State Department officials said their one-day visit to Jericho will probably take place tomorrow.

"For the first time in Palestinian history, you're seeing the Palestinians assuming responsibility for self-government," a senior official said. "We think that's a very important development."

At the same time, he said, Mr. Christopher hopes to rally both Palestinian and Israeli support for implementing the self-government agreement.

"Palestinians need to see that the realities have in fact changed on the ground," he said. "Israelis need to see the Palestinians live up to the commitments that they made, that they do all that they can to stop violence, that the Palestinians can in fact deliver, and that Israeli security doesn't suffer for it."

Mr. Christopher also wants to encourage the Palestinian Authority to take the reins of government quickly and build a bureaucracy that can handle the more than $2 billion in foreign aid that has been promised for the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the official said. He said the Palestinians and the World Bank are "fairly close" to an agreement that would release $120 million in reconstruction funds and $35 million to support the start-up costs of the new authority.

The Clinton administration and other aid donors have been visibly impatient with Mr. Arafat's balky, personalized leadership the Palestinian Authority.

Mr. Arafat is formally chairman of the governing group, but he has said that he will not arrive in Jericho until mid-June.

In the PLO chairman's absence, Mr. Christopher appeared quite pleased at a chance to bolster the authority of moderates from the West Bank and Gaza Strip who have been doing business with the United States longer than Mr. Arafat.

"If we had waited a long time," the official said, it could have pushed implementation "down the road."

The plan being implemented is the agreement signed May 4 in Cairo, Egypt, for Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Jericho. That was intended as an initial step, after which Israel and the Palestinians will agree on terms for the transfer of other parts of the West Bank.

The overall withdrawal is occurring under last September's peace agreement between Israel and the PLO.

On previous visits, Mr. Christopher met with Palestinian leaders in the eastern, predominantly Arab half of Jerusalem -- the city they claim, as does Israel, as their capital.

Mr. Christopher consulted with the Israeli government before deciding to visit Jericho, an aide said, and the Israelis did not object.

Mr. Christopher held a round of talks yesterday evening with Syria's Mr. Assad on his tentative peace negotiations with Israel but reported no immediate results.

Syria has long demanded a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, captured in 1967, as the price of peace. But one diplomat said an editorial in the government-run newspaper suggests flexibility on the withdrawal timetable.

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