LEADING ARTICLE: A welcome for Mr Arafat

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The Independent Online
There is both painful symbolism and a message of hope for the future in Yasser Arafat's arrival at Downing Street today to meet John Major. Painful, because Mr Arafat was once labelled a terrorist and the transition from gunman to peacemaker - as Mr Major knows - is a metamorphosis that tests tolerance on all sides. Painful, too, because Britain's involvement with Palestine tormented both our own administrators and the rival peoples inhabiting that sacred corner of the old Ottoman empire.

But Palestinians and Israelis, most of them, have now made peace. Mr Arafat is on his way to Washington to sign the second stage of his agreement with Israel. It is not a perfect deal; indeed, the Palestinians have had to negotiate hard for the most minimal concessions. But it represents a second step towards justice for the Palestinian people and a stable place in the Middle East for Israel. The two are interwoven, for unless the rights of the Palestinians are honoured - and they are enshrined in fundamental UN resolutions - then peace will never prevail in the lands between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean.

That is the paradox which confounds the zealots of the Israeli right, who deserve to lose their battle to hang on to illegal settlements and confiscated lands in the West Bank. It is also the calculation which impels Muslim fundamentalists and the radical elements of the PLO to argue against the agreements. Nothing but complete restitution will satisfy the ardent nationalist or the exile of 1947, nothing but the extinction of Zionism would content the most militant Islamist.

But these are arguments whose redundancy is only highlighted by the violent means used to advance them. Mr Arafat did the right thing by negotiating with Israel while Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres confounded the notion that old men cling implacably to outdated ideas. Their task now is to construct a viable framework for progress towards a permanent settlement.

Mr Rabin wants to see "a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian entity that is not subject to us and lives in peaceful co-existence with us". Mr Arafat, no less than his radical critics, wants a Palestinian state. The simultaneous virtue and weakness of this peace process is that each side can see its fruits as they will, allowing the Palestinians to build their national identity while binding future Israeli governments, perhaps led by less enlightened men, to their commitments.

Britain and its European partners can play a useful role to support the tenacious policy to this end advanced by successive US Secretaries of State. They should lend their support to legitimate Palestinian claims while firmly reiterating Israel's right to exist within secure borders.

Mr Arafat needs economic assistance and a measure of political help to make his nation a reality. Britain should not shirk criticism in enhancing its aid and giving the maximum legitimacy to the instruments of the nascent Palestinian state. Mr Major's trip to Gaza marked a worthwhile start. To take another example, ministers should certainly call at the Palestinian offices at Orient House in Jerusalem on any future visits.

The Palestinians suffered a fearful injustice after 1947 when they paid the price for the crimes of modern Europe. Even today their suffering continues, as 30,000 face expulsion from Libya at the whim of Colonel Gaddafi. Mr Major should assure his guest of Britain's continued support for a peaceful, methodical process to regain their rights and, eventually, to rebuild their exiled nation.