Why White House Unrolls Red Carpet For Arafat Meeting

Visit allows Clinton to bolster peace process

It's' payback time for Yasser Arafat.

Having made good on a promise to persuade Palestinian legislators to abandon a 32-year-old pledge to destroy Israel, the Palestinian leader is being welcomed to the White House for what administration officials are billing as an "informal" but symbolically important visit with President Clinton.

But today's meeting is more than a simple quid pro quo to reward the former guerrilla-leader-turned-peacemaker. It will also provide Mr. Clinton with an opportunity to remind Israelis and Palestinians what's at stake as they prepare for the final, critical phase of their 2-1/2-year peace process, beginning May 5.

The Arafat visit will also give Clinton a chance to reinforce a message that Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres has made the centerpiece of his bid for reelection when Israelis go to the polls May 29. "The Clinton-Arafat meeting signals to anyone in Israel still in doubt that it's impossible to turn [the peace process] back or that there's anyone else to do business with besides Arafat," says one Washington-based Middle East expert.

In return for shepherding last week's revocation of the offending language in the Palestinian covenant, Mr. Arafat also received public praise from the Israeli head of state, a promise by Mr. Peres to complete a phased withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian cities on the West Bank, and a concession from Peres's Labor party, which has dropped its opposition to an eventual Palestinian state in the two territories.

Peres, completing a Washington visit of his own April 30, was tentatively scheduled to meet with Arafat on the same day.

Arafat is being welcomed to Washington for the first time as, in effect, a national leader. Last January, he was elected president of Palestinian Authority, which governs Gaza and the major population centers of the West Bank.

The visit will provide the long-time Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman with a chance to remind Clinton of a commitment made to Palestinians at a conference on terrorism held last March in Egypt. At the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, donor nations agreed to provide financial aid to compensate the Palestinian Authority for huge economic losses that have resulted from Israel's closure of the West Bank and Gaza following a recent series of terrorist attacks.

The closure has kept more than 100,000 Palestinian workers from jobs in Israel, resulting in losses of $2 million per day, according to Palestinian estimates.

"Palestinians have made peace and now they're starving," says Khalil Jahshan, president of the National Association of Arab Americans in Washington. "That imposes a serious constraint on Palestinian self-government itself."

Peres departed Washington this week with a significant prize of his own: an agreement that commits the US to help Israel defend against ballistic missiles (like those launched against the Jewish state by Iraq during the Gulf war) and small rockets (like the hundreds of "Katyushas" launched against northern Israel in recent weeks by Hizbullah forces in southern Lebanon).

The rocket attacks provoked a massive Israeli assault on Hizbullah positions starting three weeks ago. The ground-, ship-, and aircraft-based bombardment left 160 Lebanese dead and forced hundreds of thousands more to flee to safety.

The mini-war between Israel and Hizbullah ended when Israel, Lebanon, and Syria agreed to a US-brokered cease-fire. The cease-fire coincided with the decision by the Palestine National Council, the Palestinian legislature-in-exile, to revoke its charter language calling for Israel's destruction.

The back-to-back events - plus Israel's hard-line response to the Hizbullah attacks - have strengthened Mr. Peres politically with less than a month to go in his contest for reelection with Likud-party rival Benjamin Netanyahu.

As with Peres, Clinton is expected to stress with Arafat the US's determination to see progress on the final round of peace talks that will address, among other things, the final status of Jerusalem and the status of Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and Gaza.

Clinton is also likely to remind Arafat that publicly highlighting his major differences with Israel at the start of the talks and before Israel's elections are held could prove detrimental to Peres.

Arafat's White House meeting may help in this regard by taking the limelight off the early stages of the final status talks.

"It becomes sort of a substitute for a big, fancy kickoff to the final status talks," says the Middle East expert. "It may take some of the pressure off."

Progress toward peace was arrested by a series of recent Palestinian suicide attacks in Israel.

Any further terrorist attacks could sink Peres's reelection hopes and with it, both Clinton and Arafat are convinced, hopes for serious progress in the final status negotiations.

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