Arafat agrees to US peace visit

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The Independent Online

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is to meet with US President Bill Clinton in Washington in the latest bid to bring peace to the Middle East.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is to meet with US President Bill Clinton in Washington in the latest bid to bring peace to the Middle East.

Clinton has also invited Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, but Barak said calm must be restored before peace talks can resume.

No date was announced for Arafat's visit.

But the momentum generated by five weeks of daily clashes proved hard to stop. After midday prayers at mosques, clashes began breaking out, and one Palestinian was shot dead in Tulkarem and another in Hizme, both in the West Bank.

They were among a half-dozen rock throwing confrontations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Overall, the clashes weren't as intense as the past few days, but they demonstrated that many young Palestinians were still prepared to take to the streets.

Four Israeli soldiers were also hurt, the army said.

After several failed cease-fires, Israeli and Palestinian leaders abandoned their inflammatory rhetoric and called for restraint in the most concerted effort yet to halt five weeks of fighting.

"We will persevere in our efforts for peace," said Barak

"We are strong enough to stand on both fronts: the battle for peace and the struggle against violence and terror."

Palestinian leaders, who have designated the past several Fridays a "day of rage," also took on a more subdued tone, saying events today and Saturday would determine whether the truce agreement was taking hold.

One Palestinian official said the end of the violence would not mean an end to the protests.

"We've said clearly that the agreement does not mean we shall stop the intefadeh (uprising)," Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo told Israel television.

"That is because the intefadeh is not something that begins and stops by orders."

Several cease-fires have collapsed without ever going into effect, including a deal brokered in Egypt last month by Clinton.

The latest agreement, based on the truce negotiated by Clinton, was reached early yesterday after overnight talks between Arafat and former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres.

A car bomb that killed two Israelis in Jerusalem and firefights in Palestinian territories threatened to destroy the agreement.

Throughout the conflict, such outbursts have often touched off retaliatory violence. But over the past two days, both sides have taken steps to implement the truce - Israel has pulled back tanks from Palestinian cities, and Palestinian police have restrained rock-throwing youths.

"We're doing our best," said Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian negotiator. "It's much calmer today (in the Gaza Strip) than any day before."

Three Israeli soldiers were killed in fighting on Wednesday in addition to the two Israeli civilians who died in Thursday's bombing - events that normally prompt a swift and powerful Israeli military response.

"It's true that the gunfire continues and it's true that there are still clashes," Danny Yatom, Barak's top adviser, said on Israel radio.

"At the same time, I believe, from what I know, that the Palestinians are trying to calm the situation."

David Kimche, president of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, said the Israeli public wanted the government to respond with force, but praised the decision to give the truce a chance to take effect.

"The Israel public is angry, they want a strong response," said Kimche.

"They fear Israel is being seen as too weak."

But a military response "would be playing into the hands of those who want to see an end to the peace process," he said. "The government is acting with a great deal of responsibility."

Almost 170 people have been killed in the fighting, the worst violence since the sides began peace negotiations in 1993. The vast majority of those killed were Palestinians.

Barak and Arafat were expected to formally declare the truce yesterday afternoon in simultaneous announcements. But the statements were postponed and neither leader has yet announced the cease-fire.

Today, Arafat said there never was a deal for the two leaders to make televised announcements, the network reported. He said the Palestinians met their commitment by issuing a statement over the radio yesterday that called for Palestinians to "stick to peaceful means" when demonstrating.

The Israelis clearly expected more. The government invited journalists to hear Barak's announcement yesterday, and cameras were ready. Then it canceled the event when it became evident Arafat was not prepared to make a televised statement at the same time.