US rolls out red carpet for Arafat

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Not long ago reviled as a terrorist, Yasser Arafat yesterday came to the Oval Office as a national leader in his own right, pledging to stick to his agreements with Israel, and pleading for more US and international aid for the Palestinian people.

He has been to Washington three times since his handshake of peace with Yitzhak Rabin at the White House in 1993, but never before by himself. Previous meetings here with President Bill Clinton were essentially ceremonial. But this one-hour, one-on-one business session with Mr Clinton meant more - a symbol of how the Palestinian leader is now a "routine" protagonist in US diplomacy in the Middle East.

His itinerary was that of any head of government. On Tuesday he also briefly met the Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, to prepare this month's final round of negotiations to define Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Minutes after he stepped out of a limousine, in military uniform and wearing his black-and-white keffiyeh, Mr Arafat was publicly praised by Mr Clinton for pushing through the Palestinian National Council the decision to scrap the PLO's 1964 covenant demanding the destruction of the state of Israel.

"Under difficult circumstances, he kept that commitment," Mr Clinton said, a reference to recent fighting between Israel and Hizbollah in southern Lebanon, in which hundreds of civilians died under Israeli bombardment and which at one point threatened to overturn the entire Middle East peace process.

Although his dealings with the President cannot aspire to match the mutual-admiration society Mr Clinton and Mr Peres are conducting in an election year for both of them, Mr Arafat's standing at the White House puts him in a strong position to demand that the US and its allies deliver on pledges of aid for the Palestinian state.

In an emotional speech to a Middle East economic conference on Tuesday, he said Palestine had reached "the red line of starvation". His people would respect their commitments to Israel "but can the American people live beside another nation facing starvation?"

US officials say Washington has come up with $175m (pounds 116m) of the $500m it promised to the Palestinian Authority to build infrastructure in the regions now under partial self-rule. But Mr Arafat said only $27m of a total $1.3bn promised by all countries had been forthcoming. Without tangible material benefit from the deals with Israel, support for the peace process might wither.

Indeed, after Israel closed its borders with the West Bank and Gaza following recent suicide bombings, severing thousands of Palestinians from their jobs in Israel, ordinary Palestinians are worse off than before the peace accords were signed.