Arafat's strategy ruined by snub from Bibi

PLO leader turns to London for support after Israeli election, writes Patrick Cockburn
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The Independent Online
Jerusalem - His strategy is in ruins, Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, flew into London last night just as the Israeli government with which he signed the Oslo peace agreements began to make way for its right- wing successor.

Israel's Prime Minister-elect Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, says he would prefer not to meet Mr Arafat.

It is Mr Arafat's first visit to Britain as the elected president of the Palestinian Authority, which holds sway over the Palestinian enclaves in Gaza and the West Bank. Mr Arafat had hoped the autonomous areas would form the nucleus of a Palestinian state. But Mr Netanyahu has ruled this out.

Mr Arafat will meet the Prime Minister, John Major, who is expected to reiterate Britain's support for the Oslo accords. He will then go on to address the Oxford Union on "The Way Ahead: the Palestinian Perspective". During his visit he will try to increase international pressure on Mr Netanyahu to keep to agreements reached by the Labour government.

The most immediate problem is the Israeli pledge to withdraw from Hebron, administrative capital of the southern West Bank. Under Oslo Mark II, signed last year, Israel was to pull its military forces out of 85 per cent of the city by 28 March. After 63 people had been killed by four suicide bombs, Israel postponed withdrawal until after the election. The Labour government said yesterday it would leave the decision on withdrawal to its successor.

Mr Netanyahu has said he would like to postpone a decision on the future of Hebron - which has a population of 100,000 Palestinians surrounding a small settlement of 400 militant Jews in the city centre - until the final stage of negotiations. Many supporters of Mr Netanyahu - especially the religious parties - regard Hebron, and the Tomb of the Patriarchs it contains, as a Jewish holy site which must not be relinquished.

Mr Arafat now fears the Palestinians will get nothing in the final-status talks on Jerusalem, refugees, Israeli settlements and frontiers. Mr Netanyahu said during the campaign that he was not even prepared to talk about Jerusalem.

He is likely to close Orient House, the Palestinian political centre in east Jerusalem, and has promised to expand settlements on the West Bank. At the same time he has promised that Israel will live up to its international obligations.

After a seven-hour meeting in Gaza on Friday night to discuss the elections, Mr Arafat's spokesman, Marwan Kanafani, said: "Mr Netanyahu is a politician, he is not an adventurer, and I think he will respect the agreement which has been signed between the National Authority and the State of Israel."

Meanwhile, the victorious Likud Party made its first contact ever with the Palestine Authority on Friday when Dr Dore Gold, a Netanyahu foreign-policy adviser, phoned Mahmoud Abbas, a leading PLO official.

Most menacing for Mr Arafat is Mr Netanyahu's position that he will allow the Israeli army to exercise the right of hot pursuit into autonomous Palestinian enclaves.

During the campaign he accused the Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, of letting Mr Arafat, in effect, control Israeli security. If there is another suicide bomb causing casualties, it will be difficult for Mr Netanyahu to change his position.

In Lebanon, where Hizbollah guerrillas killed four Israeli soldiers and two members of the Israeli-controlled militia last week, Mr Netanyahu is likely to try punishing Syria forces in Lebanon directly for any Hizbollah attack.

Likud advisers such as Dr Gold have argued against Labour's strategy of blaming Iran for orchestrating Hizbollah activities, and say Syria must be held responsible for attacks.

t Binyamin Netanyahu, elected as Israel's next prime minister on a pledge of tougher positions in Middle East peace talks, called yesterday for "peace with security" with the Jewish state's Arab neighbours.

"I said the peace begins at home, but it has to be continued abroad," Mr Netanyahu told cheering supporters in his first public speech since his electoral victory last week. "We will also work to further peace deals and coexistence with other Arab states. I call on them also to join the circle of peace," he said.