Arafat's peace move for Clinton

YASSER ARAFAT, the Palestinian leader, convened senior officials and legislators yesterday to drop clauses from the Palestinian charter which call for the elimination of Israel, in the run-up to President Bill Clinton's visit to Gaza.

The Palestinians voted overwhelmingly to declare the clauses null and void. The vote was an interim step ahead of Monday's session of the Palestine National Council (PNC), which is to reaffirm the move in the presence of Mr Clinton.

As the leaders met, thousands of Palestinians marched through the rain in the funeral procession of Jihad Iyad, a 17-year-old stonemason shot on Wednesday when there was rioting throughout the West Bank. Yesterday's rain helped to reduce clashes between Israeli soldiers and demonstrators calling for the release of 2,400 Palestinian prisoners.

Mr Arafat may also be trying to contain the protests as he prepares to welcome Mr Clinton on Monday. The Israeli hard right sees the visit as de facto recognition of a Palestinian state by Washington.Posters showing Mr Clinton wearing Palestinian head-dress, and slogans saying "Clinton, Go Home", have been appearing on walls in Jerusalem.

The clauses in the Palestinian charter to which Israel objects are being removed by an elaborate constitutional mechanism whereby the Palestinian Central Council in Gaza yesterday approved a letter from Mr Arafat to Mr Clinton, saying the clauses had been nullified.

One hundred and five of the 124-member central council were present for the vote; 81 voted for, seven voted against and seven abstained.

Meanwhile, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, says he has orderedsecurity forces to act with "an iron fist" against rioters after clashes this week which left two Palestinians dead and 150 people injured. "Our duty is to activate the Israeli army and the security element against this trouble in the firmest possible way," he said.

Mr Netanyahu said he would wait to see the outcome of the PNC meeting before deciding whether to attend a meeting with Mr Clinton and Mr Arafat. The Israeli leader had insisted that the PNC decision be reached by vote rather than by acclamation.

Another sign of tension between Israel and the United States was an angry response by Mr Netanyahu to a report that William Daley, the US Commerce Secretary, had made an implicit call for fresh elections in Israel. "Hopefully the people of Israel will make their voices heard a little louder in their support for peace," he is alleged to have said. The US embassy later said Mr Daley was misreported.

On a more personal level, the Clintons are reported by the Israeli press to have declined a meeting with Mr Netanyahu and his wife. Diplomats say Mrs Clinton is trying to limit the amount of time she will spend with Suha Arafat, fearing she will have to give equal time to Mrs Netanyahu.

In an effort to stop the rioting on the West Bank, Dennis Ross, the US special envoy, made an implicit appeal yesterday for Israel to modify its refusal to free the Palestinian detainees, who are on hunger strike. The rioting began when Israel freed 150 criminals, many of them car thieves, but only 100 security prisoners under the Wye Agreement brokered by Mr Clinton in October.