US warns Arafat on independent state

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The Independent Online
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, the US Secretary of State, held intensive back-to-back meetings with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Yasser Arafat, in New York over the weekend, amid fears that the Palestinian leader may be planning to declare a Palestinian state.

With both leaders expected to hold critical talks with President Bill Clinton at the White House today, Ms Albright was seeking, in particular, to forestall a threat by Mr Arafat to declare an independent Palestine in May next year, regardless of the state of negotiations with Israel.

Protected by scores of security commandos brandishing sub-machine guns before startled tourists, Mr Arafat took to the avenues of Manhattan yesterday to address a private conference on Middle East peace at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue and then visited St Patrick's Catholic Cathedral on Fifth Avenue.

American officials said Ms Albright had warned the Palestinian leader to desist from reiterating his threat to declare an independent state when he gives a speech to the United Nations General Assembly this morning. "Our view is that it would be a mistake and not helpful for chairman Arafat to make a unilateral statement," her spokesman, James Rubin, said.

If the atmosphere surrounding the deadlocked Middle East peace process can be improved, Washington is hopeful that progress can be made this week on an agreement for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank.

The US goal is an agreement by Mr Netanyahu to withdraw from an additional 13 per cent of the West Bank on top of the 27 per cent that Israel has already agreed to leave in earlier stages of the process.

This represents a new approach by the US. Washington had previously hoped for a comprehensive agreement on the outstanding issues in the peace process, which is meant to culminate in the creation of the Palestinian state by next May. US officials this weekend played down the prospect of such a global accord being reached in the near future.

Mr Arafat appeared to be taking a softer approach in his Waldorf address yesterday, suggesting that the transition to an independent state should still be achieved through the peace process. "Let me give a clear `yes' to the American initiative, which does not even meet our minimalist requirement," he said. Making no direct reference to any unilateral declarations of independence, he added: "I want and hope that the declaration of the existence of an independent Palestinian state on Palestinian soil will be carried out within the framework of an international celebration." He said the May 1999 deadline"cannot come and go like any other day".

As part of any agreement to surrender the 13 per cent, Israel is demanding that 3 per cent of that land should be set aside by Mr Arafat as a "nature reserve". Mr Netanyahu also wants fresh guarantees from Mr Arafat that he will take steps to thwart extremist activities on the territory under his control.

On this, too, Mr Arafat also appeared conciliatory yesterday. "I want to reiterate our policy of zero tolerance to terror and violence," he said. "I will continue fighting without hesitancy and without linkage to the peace process."