Focus: Mr Clinton's Gaza slip

He wanted to take the spotlight off the threat from Congress, but three crises blight the US President's historic Palestinian visit
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President Clinton arrives in Gaza tomorrow, bringing the US close to recognising a Palestinian state. He also comes in the middle of a crisis in which rioting on the West Bank has reached a level not seen for two years and which holds the threat of the Israeli government falling by the end of the month.

"The Americans and us agree," Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, has kept repeating with surprised delight ever since he signed the agreement for a limited Israeli pull-back at the Wye Plantation in Maryland in October.

The Israeli government response is different. In words which enraged the White House, Benjamin Netan- yahu, the Israeli prime minister, showed his lack of enthusiasm for Clinton's visit by telling his cabinet: "If he comes, he comes; if not, not."

Among Palestinians and Israelis alike, President Clinton's imminent arrival in Gaza is producing an ambivalent reaction. One official in Mr Arafat's Palestinian authority said: "I have just been ordering American flags to be handed out to the crowds. There are 1,500 plastic ones, which are cheap, and 1,500 linen ones which are more expensive. On the other hand the linen ones catch fire more easily if we have to burn them later."

In Jerusalem, meanwhile, municipal employees are busy tearing down posters showing President Clinton in a Palestinian headdress, which are accompanied by wall slogans saying: "Clinton go home".

Mr Netanyahu has tried to defuse the significance of the Gaza visit. He insisted that President Clinton arrive at the newly opened Gaza International Airport by helicopter and not on board Airforce One. This distressed White House staff who want to emphasise the historic nature of President Clinton's mission at the moment when Congress is debating his impeachment.

But the misgivings of the Israeli government have, if anything, underlined the symbolic importance of tomorrow's event. President Clinton will be addressing the Palestinian National Council many of whose members were long ago denounced as "terrorists" by successive US administrations.

Mr Arafat knows what he is getting: a closer relationship with the US. But for this he has paid a high price. He has agreed to an Israeli pull- back on the West Bank of only 13 per cent, which will leave the Palestinian enclaves cut off from each other, at a time when Israeli settlements are expanding at a faster rate than at any time since she took the West Bank in 1967.

IT IS this feeling that Mr Arafat's diplomatic victories are not being matched by improvement in their own lives which has muted the enth- usiasm of many Palestinians for the Clinton visit. Unemployment in Gaza is three times what it was in the 1980s. Average wages have dropped by between 40 and 50 per cent, according to Salem Ajlun, the head of social and economic monitoring in the UN special coordinating office for the occupied territories.

"It is like raindrops falling on the roof," says Younes Jaro, a lawyer in Gaza who belongs to the secular left Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine. "Clinton's visit will have no effect. I have two sons at university. One is in London and visits me once a year. The other is a hundred miles away in Bir Zeit university on the West Bank and the Israelis haven't allowed him to come to Gaza in three years." He speaks angrily of the 300 officials of the Palestine Authority who have special VIP passes issued by Israel allowing them to travel between the West Bank and Gaza.

But it was the decision after Wye of Mr Netanyahu to release only 250 prisoners, of whom 150 were common criminals, which has ignited the rioting of the past two weeks. Prisoners carry prestige in Palestinian society. Of the 2,400 in Israeli jails some 900 belong to Fatah, Mr Arafat's own organisation, according to Hisham Abdel-Raziq, the Palestinian Minister for Prisoner Affairs. Mr Netanyahu complained that no agreement was reached at Wye on the number or type of prisoner to be released. This is undoubtedly right. But among prisoners' families the sight of Palestinian car thieves leaving prison while their own relatives, jailed for carrying out Mr Arafat's orders, stayed inside, has created sustained rage.

Over the past few weeks it is the prisoners themselves who have taken the initiative, smuggling out messages that call for demonstrations and hunger strikes. The result has been the most sustained rioting on the West Bank since the opening of a tunnel under the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem in September 1996, when 70 Palestinians and Israelis died. Nor has Mr Arafat much option but to go along with it unless he wants to appear a quisling in the eyes of the 2.5 million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza.

The problem for President Clinton is that he faces not one but three crises as he lands in Israel. The first is between the US and Israel and is conducted through verbal sniping and is exacerbated by the president's need to appear as an internationally effective president, just as Repub- licans in Congress move towards his impeachment. He also faces a crisis in relations between Israel and the Palestinians, which has deepened since the Wye accords. But there is a third crisis, which he can do very little to influence, because it is within the Israeli government itself.

MR NETANYAHU won the election of 1996 because he was able to ride two very different political horses at the same time. Polls then showed that the majority of Israelis approved of the Oslo accords.

Mr Netanyahu said he would implement them, but with tougher conditions for the Palestinians. This seemed reasonable to many voters, given that some 60 Israelis had just been killed by suicide bombers from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the Islamic militant organisations. But an essential part of Mr Netanyahu's base is the hard right. He gave them the impression in 1996 - and even confirmed it in writing - that he would give up no territory on the West Bank which they considered land given by God to the Jews.

It was the agreement at Wye which broke up this uneasy coalition. The hard right felt betrayed. Last Monday they came close to bringing his government down by threatening to vote along with the Labour-led opposition, and Mr Netanyahu still faces a motion of no-confidence in the Knesset before the end of the month.

Yet the Israeli prime minister's position may not be as bad as it seems - the hard right want to force him to give up Wye, not to overthrow him - but the casualty in all this, President Clinton, is finding that the Wye agreement over which he presided has worsened relations between Israel and the Palestinians.

It has changed the contours of the battlefield rather than bringing peace. Palestinians on the streets of Gaza will be waving the Stars and Stripes tomorrow, but will also be wondering how well the American flag will burn.