PLO turn backs on American mediation

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As the United States begins to mediate between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Dennis Ross, the US chief negotiator, is to see Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, in Morroco today and then fly on to Israel to see Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister.

Palestinian leaders fear Mr Ross will try to put pressure on them to arrest members of Hamas, the Islamic militant organisation, following last week's suicide bombing, without getting Israel to stop building at Har Homa, the new Jewish settlement in Jerusalem, called Jabal Abu Ghneim by Palestinians.

Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian negotiator, said: "If he [Mr Ross] is coming to practice his usual habit of arranging a high level meeting, I predict the failure of his mission."

Marwan Barghouti, the leader of Fatah, Mr Arafat's political movement, on the West Bank, added that Mr Ross should not come if he was going to put pressure on Mr Arafat "to crack down on Palestinians while the bulldozers will continue." He predicted more suicide attacks.

Mr Netanyahu is hoping to win American support, despite Washington's anger over his decision to build at Har Homa, by insisting that Mr Arafat "gave the green light" for last Friday's suicide bomb.

Gen Amon Lipkin-Shahak, the Israeli chief of staff, also insists Mr Arafat covertly gave the signal to Hamas, though he admits Israel does not know for certain who was behind the attack which killed three women and injured 61 people.

The crisis has boosted the much talked of option of Mr Netanyahu forming a national unity government with Labour. Shimon Peres, the former prime minister defeated last year, favours the idea, but it is regarded with scepticism by Ehud Barak, likely to be Labour's next leader. Although the idea is backed by the US, Mr Netanyahu has probably not decided to try a coalition, but finds it a useful stick with which to threaten dissident members of his cabinet and his own party.

It is not clear how Mr Ross will proceed in his mediation. By going on an extended political tour during the present crisis, Mr Arafat has signalled that he feels he is in a strong position. The US State Department apparently had difficulty locating him in Bangladesh in order to arrange his meeting with Mr Ross in Rabat today.

Dr Khalil Shikaki, a leading Palestinian political scientist, says Mr Ross and his team were responsible for the vagueness of the Hebron accord in January, which led to Israel building at Har Homa and to offering to make only a limited withdrawal on the West Bank.

Mr Netanyahu says the real struggle is not over Har Homa but over the existence of Israel. "The real struggle that is aimed against us is not about Har Homa, but about our sovereignty in Jerusalem, and, in the end, about our sovereignty in Jaffa and Ramat Aviv," he said.

Although the government is not directly accusing Mr Arafat of knowing about the suicide bomb, the allegations sound increasingly like those made before the Oslo accords in 1993.

Moshe Peled, the Deputy Education Minister, says Israeli intelligence has evidence that Mr Arafat had prior knowledge of the bomb attack on the World Trade Center in New York four years ago. "More than that, he was part of the discussions on the operation," says Mr Peled. "I call on the prime minister to give the information to the Americans, so they'll know who they're dealing with." There are signs that the US has moved towards the Israeli position that Mr Arafat gave the green light for the suicide attack, although in practice, the accusation is rather that he did not take measures to prevent it.

There were sporadic stone-throwings by Palestinians on the West Bank yesterday in Hebron, Bethlehem and Ramallah. But the next test of strength will be on Sunday when Palestinians hold an annual day of demonstrations called "Land Day" to commemorate the shooting dead of six Israeli Arabs by Israeli border police in 1976 and to protest against Israeli land confiscations. Fatah leaders insist Palestinian anger over Har Homa is so strong that it would be impossible for Mr Arafat to stop demonstrations or crack down on Hamas.

Colombo (AP) - Mr Arafat surprised his Sri Lankan hosts at a state banquet by pulling out his pistol. While chatting with President Chandrika Kumaratunga, a leader of a former Tamil rebel group jocularly asked the Palestinian leader: "Do you still carry a pistol as you did when you went to the UN?" A grinning Arafat pulled out a pistol and showed it to them.