US rewards Arafat with offer of aid

YASSER ARAFAT reassured the United States yesterday there would be no premature declaration of Palestinian statehood and that he would wait until the target date for the completion of the Oslo peace process in May.

The Palestinian leader was speaking to Arab-American fund-raisers and supporters at a brunch near Washington, an event closely modelled on fund- raising events held by Jewish organisations, before talks with US trade officials and the IMF in Washington.

Mr Arafat was believed to have threatened a unilateral declaration of statehood in the event of the collapse of last month's Wye River talks. But yesterday he told his audience, some of whom expressed their impatience for a fully fledged state, that he hoped for the declaration of an independent Palestinian state "when the interim phase will end".

He also announced he had invited Christian leaders, including the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, to attend festivities for the millennium in Bethlehem, which is under Palestinian jurisdiction.

Mr Arafat's programme of meetings in Washington marks the return to the US capital of the Middle East roadshow, which gears up today with the start of two important international conferences. The theme of one conference will be aid for the Palestinians, while another will deal with the Nazis' Holocaust-era seizures of Jewish art and money.

The conferences come five weeks after Israeli and Palestinian leaders signed the Wye River memorandum at the White House, undertaking to put back on track implementation of the five-year-old Oslo peace accord. President Bill Clinton will formally open the Palestinian donors' conference, which Washington officials are presenting as a by-product of the peace talks.

But the timing is something of a mystery, as the first and only such conference was held five years ago. The US State Department says that it was felt the time was right for another. There is speculation that the US-sponsored attempt to attract more international aid for the Palestinians is a reward to Mr Arafat for stalling on the declaration of Palestinian statehood. The US is expected to double its financial assistance to $150m (pounds 93.7m) annually, although this is paltry compared with the European Union's promised $4bn package.

Representatives from more than 50 countries will attend the second meeting, the follow-up to last year's London conference on Nazi gold. The broader focus of this meeting will include the tracking and restitution of confiscated art and the vexed question of the insurance policies of Holocaust victims.

The timing of the two conferences suggests that the US is trying to be seen as more evenhanded with Israelis and Palestinians. The White House on Friday released the outline itinerary of President Clinton's visit to the region next month, when he will visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Gaza to become the first US leader to address the Palestinian assembly.

Israeli warplanes struck suspected guerrilla bases in southern Lebanon for the second consecutive day yesterday to avenge attacks on Israeli outposts, Lebanese security officials said.

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