New tough image cheers Arafat - but it can't last

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The Independent Online

Yasser Arafat yesterday flew out of the Gaza Strip to begin a two-day foreign tour to drum up support for his planned state of Palestine and for his handling of the Camp David summit. But he set off for France and Saudi Arabia with a warning ringing in his ears from Bill Clinton of the possible consequences if he declares a state without a comprehensive agreement with Israel.

Yasser Arafat yesterday flew out of the Gaza Strip to begin a two-day foreign tour to drum up support for his planned state of Palestine and for his handling of the Camp David summit. But he set off for France and Saudi Arabia with a warning ringing in his ears from Bill Clinton of the possible consequences if he declares a state without a comprehensive agreement with Israel.

Mr Clinton, speaking on Israeli television, said that America's "entire relationship" with the Palestinians will be reviewed if Mr Arafat goes ahead with UDI. He spoke of moving the US embassy to West Jerusalem, a move approved by Congress in 1995 but blocked by the President on security grounds, and of bolstering Israel's military forces still further. A unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood would be a "big mistake", he said.

And yet the Palestinian leadership's annoyance at this latest lecture from Mr Clinton seemed surprisingly mild, despite the fact that he charged Israel in general terms with spreading "lies" and "propaganda" about why the Camp David peace summit failed, just before he departed.

Mr Arafat and his advisers appear to have concluded that Mr Clinton's remarks were primarily an attempt to bolster Ehud Barak, who is clinging to power after his coalition government fell apart before Camp David, and faces a vote of no confidence in the Knesset tomorrow. The Palestinian top brass has no desire to see Mr Barak leave office.

Curiously, Mr Clinton's comments were broadcast after Mr Arafat had signalled that he was softening his stance on declaring a state.

On Wednesday, he told the English language Saudi Gazette that the process of declaring his state "would begin to take shape" from 13 September - a clear shift of position.

In fact, the Palestinian leader will now almost certainly not declare a state unilaterally - and the US knows this. He does not want to jeopardise US aid to the new Palestine, with its elaborate and multi-layered CIA-supported security apparatus. The fat cat "Oslo class" in his leadership - as ordinary Palestinians call the club of wealthy VIPs engaged in the endless "peace process" - do not want the negotiations to fall apart, or the money that it attracts to disappear. They know that peace talks would certainly be suspended if Mr Arafat acted unilaterally - if only because of the harsh Israeli response.

The post-summit rise in his popularity on the streets of Gaza and the West Bank - although not huge and unlikely to last for long - will make it easier for him to delay the great day without unrest. "He has waited 50 years. He can wait 50 days," said Brigadier General Nizar Ammar, head of the planning department in the Palestinian Authority's National Security organisation.

Nor does Mr Arafat want to lose the advance which he believes he made at Camp David, which allowed him to leave the summit not as a serial concession-maker - as many Palestinians see him - but as the heroic defender of Arab rights in the Holy City of Jerusalem. Senior Palestinian sources say he was cock-a-hoop over the fact that Mr Barak had entered detailed talks on the city.

Mr Arafat returned home claiming not only to have stuck to his guns on Jerusalem, but believing that a threshold had been crossed. The fact that proposals made at the talks are now "null and void" under the summit's rules, or that Israel has not lived up to past agreements, does not appear to have dented his mood. He immediately ordered his security services to ensure that there was no unrest on the streets, and to order low-level contacts with the Israelis to resume, which they will today.

And indeed, the streets of Gaza remained calm. Mr Arafat's latest performance has improved his standing among some of the one million people crammed into this small oblong of rubbish-strewn land, between the beach and the barbed-wire fences that surround it. But a dozen Gazans interviewed by the Independent on Sunday - as the Friday crowds flooded the beaches and wedding processions blared their way through the narrow streets of Gaza City - expressed little overall enthusiasm for the deal taking shape. Take Tarik, a computer science student, who has spent all his 21 years in Gaza.

A few weeks ago he travelled along the so-called "safe passage" now linking Gaza with the West Bank. It took eight hours to make a two-hour journey, because of the security checks, but the sight made a huge impression. "It was too beautiful, just to see our land. It was much better than I expected."

It is was the land of his dreams - dreams in which Camp David and the "Oslo class" do not figure. "This is an unjust peace from the beginning. We don't want a state at [any] cost. It just won't last."

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