Arafat flies the flag on first visit to Britain: Historic meeting launches busy two-day schedule

PALESTINE may not be a state yet, and there are those who hope it never will be. But yesterday political and civic leaders in Britain welcomed the man who has become identified in the public imagination as the embodiment of the national aspirations of the Palestinian people.

Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, has clocked up more air-miles than a jumbo-jet pilot going from capital to capital, feted in most, cold-shouldered in Damascus and drawing criticism from his own people for not spending more time on the difficult negotiations with the Israelis. But he has never been to London before.

So there was an appropriately festive spirit. Among all the seasonal fairy lights and Christmas trees, a red, white, green and black Palestinian flag fluttered from atop the Dorchester Hotel in Park Lane, where he was staying, just up from the menorah erected for the Jewish festival of lights, Hannukah. Even the Jaguar XJ6 that whisked him to his first call on Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, flew the Palestinian flag.

It was an especially symbolic meeting. In 1917 a predecessor of Mr Hurd, Arthur Balfour, made the commitment to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which was shortly to be governed by Britain under a League of Nations mandate. This led to the creation of the state of Israel and the dispersal of the Palestinian people.

Other guests at Mr Hurd's lunch were the ambassadors of Egypt, Israel and the United States, and leaders of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

Mr Arafat's was a busy schedule: after lunch he attended Prime Minister's Question Time at the House of Commons, then went to address the All-Party Middle East Council at Westminster. There he appeared in olive-green battle fatigues and his trademark chequered keffiyeh headscarf. It was a subdued Arafat coming keffiyeh-in- hand, so to speak, to solicit aid. He said Britain had a moral and political responsibility in Palestine, and appealed for help in establishing the basic infrastructure in the Palestinian entity. He said he had already asked Mr Hurd to help re-establish two police training schools, one in Bethlehem, one in the Gaza Strip, once they were reopened by the Israelis.

He then met John Smith, the Leader of the Opposition, and went to a reception at the Egyptian embassy (Israelis not invited); and meetings with the Islamic Council for Palestine and the Council for Middle East Trade. Today he is due to call on church and Jewish leaders, and the Prime Minister. Mr Arafat's wife, Suha, is accompanying him.

Yet for all the pomp, the circumstances of his visit are more ominous. Hopes of Mr Arafat's imminent triumphal return to Palestine have received a setback in recent days. Differences with Israel on key aspects of security in the occupied territories, from which Israel is set to withdraw, have widened.

However, Mr Arafat was upbeat. 'Where there is a will there is a way,' he repeated. 'We are committed to the peace process.' Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, had given his 'parole d'honneur'.

The best solution, he said, was for him and Mr Rabin to be locked up in a room 'till the white smoke appears'.

In Dublin - where Mr Arafat is to make his first official visit to Ireland tomorrow - the government yesterday approved the establishment of an Israeli embassy and also invited the PLO to set up a delegation, officials said.

Suha Arafat interview, page 21

(Photograph omitted)