Arafat Woos Americans As Congress Stays Cool

In interview, Palestinian leader says he finds doors opening in US

LONG shunned as an international political pariah, Yasser Arafat has suddenly gained notice where it counts: from a still skeptical but more receptive American public.

Over the past several days, the leader of what could be the next Mideast state made his first appearance before Jewish leaders in the United States, in New York, and received a standing ovation after speaking at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass.

''Now I have the ability to speak the name of my people with all the American [public] and leaders,'' says the Palestinian leader in an interview with the Monitor. ''It is a warm and fruitful change.''

From all indications it is a change Mr. Arafat needs if his vision of a Palestinian homeland ever is to be realized.

This week, Congress challenged that vision by passing bills calling for the US to relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, symbolically confirming Israel's claim to the disputed city as its capital. Arafat, outfitted in his trademark olive fatigues and checkered khafiyyeh says moving the US Embassy would ''definitely'' harm the peace process.

Arafat insists that Jerusalem should also be the capital of a Palestinian state. The issue is to be taken up in talks beginning next May on the final status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

That view is echoed by the Clinton administration, which worries that moves by Congress could prejudice the final status talks.

Arafat points to Rome - where two states, Italy and the Vatican, share sovereignty within one city - as a possible model of how differences over Jerusalem can be reconciled.

''Jerusalem can be the capital for two states without a Berlin Wall, united and open,'' says the Palestinian leader.

Arafat last visited the US in September to sign the second-phase portion of the peace process with Israel, begun in 1993. His efforts have drawn criticism from Arab hard-liners, but have set Palestinians on a path toward statehood.

The partial withdrawal of Israeli forces, which have occupied the West Bank since 1967, began yesterday in the Arab city of Jenin. Plans are on track, meanwhile, for elections in January for a new Palestinian Council that will have limited powers to govern areas handed over by Israel. The Council could provide the rudiments of an eventual national government.

Responding to Arab critics, the Palestinian leader testily defends a phased agreement with Israel that in just two years has extended partial Palestinian self-rule from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank. ''It is very easy to criticize,'' says Arafat, ''But for the first time our people have been fixed on the political map and geographical map of the Middle East.''

Arafat is close to an agreement under which the militant Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, would call a halt to attacks on Israel and participate in the upcoming elections. Arafat confirms he is working with ''moderate currents'' of Hamas, but the results are uncertain.

''They inform me that they will continue their political [opposition] to the agreement, but that they will stop military activities. I can't say that I have a full guarantee. We will have to wait and see.''

The peace process has won the support of most Palestinians who, because of it, are far better off now than they were a year ago, Arafat says. ''That's what changed the people, and Hamas has reacted positively to that change.''

Arafat presides over a region beset with economic difficulties. Fifty-eight percent of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians are unemployed, in part because an estimated 60,000 jobs in Israel have been closed off in the wake of recent terrorist attacks by Palestinian militants. In addition, he says, nearly 60 percent of Palestinians are under the age of 15, overloading the schools needed to train the next generation of Palestinian workers.

Arafat cites job creation as an urgent priority. He predicts many jobs in Israel will eventually be restored, if only because Palestinians - unlike laborers imported from Central Europe and Asia - work for low wages and no benefits.

Meanwhile, he says he hopes to create new jobs at home by using foreign investment to develop light industries, including textiles and food processing.

As for foreign aid, including $500 million in US assistance approved last year, it will be used to create the infrastructure to make economic growth possible, he says.

''All our infrastructure was destroyed during the [Israeli] occupation, and we are starting from zero, below zero,'' Arafat says. ''We need all the help - American help, international help - to enable us to carry on with our new [Palestinian] Authority. Without this help, there will be very negative [implications] on the peace process.''

The Israeli government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has staked its future on the peace process. Even so, many Israelis and US Jews say the Palestine Liberation Organization has failed to eradicate an important vestige of its old hostility toward Israel - language in its charter that calls for Israel's destruction.

''I deceive you if I say I will cancel what is written in the covenant,'' Arafat told his Harvard audience. He cited a provision of the US Constitution that counts a Negro slave as only three-fifths of a person for purposes of taxation and representation. That provision was made null and void by amendment.

A senior PLO official says Arafat plans to convene the Palestinian National Council, a legislature that includes diaspora Palestinians, after West Bank and Gaza elections are held in January. He says the PNC will then ''discuss'' amending the charter to reflect what the PLO has already done: recognize Israel's right to exist.

Asked about his partner in the peace process, Arafat says he in confident that Mr. Rabin will win next year's national elections in Israel.

If his prediction should prove wrong, he says, there is precedent for working with Israel's opposition Likud Party. Negotiations for the 1977 Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt began under a Labor government and concluded under Likud. He says it was Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin who, through Egypt in 1977, first offered to return Gaza to Palestinian rule.

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