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Clinton asks Arafat to play a waiting game

BILL CLINTON meets Yasser Arafat in Washington today to try to persuade him not to declare a Palestinian state on 4 May as he has threatened to do.

President Clinton will almost certainly be successful. The Palestinian leader does not want to provoke formal Israeli annexations on the West Bank. Nor will he do anything to help Benjamin Netanyahu get re-elected as Israeli Prime Minister in the general election on 17 May. A pre-election crisis would suit the Israeli leader nicely. Instead, Mr Arafat will try to obtain the highest possible price for delaying his declaration of statehood. He wants Washington and the European states to pledge to recognise a Palestinian state in the future. He also wants permanent and effective American involvement in his negotiations with Israel. He has now seen Mr Clinton three times in the five months since the still-born Wye accords were signed last October, while Mr Netanyahu has seen Mr Clinton only once.

Israeli diplomatic sources are quoted as saying that this shows "the tremendous power Mr Arafat has come to wield in Washington". This power may be more apparent than real. With the US presidential election looming next year, the White House will not want to offend Jewish lobbying groups in the US. And while Mr Arafat is making diplomatic gains in Washington, Israel is making it more and more difficult for the reality of a Palestinian state to exist on the West Bank. The Jewish settlements continue to spread and new roads are turning Palestinian districts into isolated enclaves.

At the same time, the 2.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank have seen few gains from the Oslo accords. Their standard of living has plummeted and Mr Arafat needs to persuade them that deferring the declaration of an independent state is in their interest.

The Palestinian leadership is desperate to see the back of Mr Netanyahu in the election - an aim it shares with the White House. It knows that Mr Netanyahu could successfully play on the anxieties of the Israeli electorate if a Palestinian state is declared less than three weeks before the poll.

Tayeb Abdel-Rahim, a senior aide of Mr Arafat, said earlier in the week: "When Clinton was in Gaza in December, he said that the Palestinians have a right to exercise their political rights on their free land. We want him to go a step further now."