Yasser Arafat, the bearded guerrilla leader once barred from the United States as an “accessory to terrorism,” and Yitzhak Rabin, the gruff former general who ordered soldiers to break the arms and legs of Arab militants, have decided to come to Washington for Monday’s signing of the Israel-PLO peace accord, officials announced Saturday.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher said that the scheduled presence of Arafat and Rabin at the White House signing “cements the relationship” between Israel and the Palestinians after almost a century of strife over which people would control a tiny but historic strip of land that is sacred to Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
U.S. organizers of the ceremony, to be attended by a glittering array of American and foreign dignitaries, said it had not yet been decided whether Arafat and Rabin will sign the peace agreement or leave that to lower-ranking officials. But the odds strongly favor signing by Rabin and Arafat, two once-bitter enemies who have never met.
State Department spokesman Mike McCurry said the Palestine Liberation Organization informed the Administration on Friday night that Arafat intended to lead the Palestinian delegation. He said that after learning of the PLO plans, Christopher contacted President Clinton and then telephoned Rabin, reaching the prime minister at 1 a.m. Saturday, Washington time, to invite him to attend.
Although the agreement was negotiated by Israel and the PLO in secret talks in Norway, completely bypassing American mediation, both parties urged the United States to stage the signing ceremony as a symbol of U.S. backing for the peace process.
In an interview Saturday with Israeli television, Christopher acknowledged that Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres had urged him to say that the United States played a major role in brokering the agreement even though it had not actually done so.
“We thought it was good to be accurate about it,” Christopher said, adding that it would not be the truth “if the United States were to try to make this document its own at that point.”
Administration officials said Peres indicated that he wanted to be able to say that the United States pressured Israel into making concessions in order to give the Israeli government some “cover” in dealing with Israeli critics of the pact. The officials said the PLO apparently agreed to the deception for the same reason.
In Houston on Saturday, Clinton said in his weekly radio address, “On Monday, Israel and the PLO will come to the White House to sign a courageous and historic peace accord, the first step in replacing war with peace and giving the children of the Middle East a chance to grow up to a normal life.”
The document to be signed is technically a statement of principles pointing the way to a more formal agreement governing Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that negotiators hope to complete promptly.
Despite the preliminary nature of the pact, both supporters and opponents of Middle East peace regard Monday’s ceremony as a turning point in the region’s often violent politics. While supporters await the final agreement, opponents--an assortment of militant Jewish settlers, hard-line Israeli nationalists, radical Palestinian nationalists and Islamic fundamentalists--are organizing to bring it down.
In Israel, the news that Arafat will attend the Washington ceremony heightened the rhetoric of Jewish opponents of the agreement.
But Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin said: “The meeting and signing with Arafat will be important because Arafat is a very difficult symbol for us. Arafat is a very important and significant barrier, (a barrier) which among other things has been his own personality. That’s why, on one hand, it is very difficult to sign an agreement with him, but on the other hand, signing an agreement with the man himself, who is the personification of the enemy, is perhaps the most important thing to do.”
Arafat and Rabin are men who have spent their entire adult lives in conflict with each other.
Rabin, elected prime minister for the second time last year, is a frequent visitor to the United States, where he once served as ambassador. He was chief of staff of the Israeli army at the time of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where Palestinians now expect to begin governing themselves. As defense minister in Yitzhak Shamir’s coalition government, Rabin gave the order to break the bones of Palestinian demonstrators during the early days of the intifada , or uprising against Israeli rule.
If Rabin’s visits to the United States are common, Arafat visits are rare. The last time the PLO leader was on American soil was in November, 1974, when he addressed the United Nations with a handgun clearly visible on his hip. Later, when Arafat sought another visit to the United Nations, then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz denied him a visa, calling him an “accessory to terrorism.”
The Palestinians plan to send a 15-member delegation to the ceremony Monday. In addition to Arafat, they will send four members of the PLO executive committee: Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Maazen), the architect of the PLO’s peace program, Yasser Abed-Rabho, Yasser Amro and Jawid Ghossayn.
Arafat plans to stop in Paris for a possible meeting with French President Francois Mitterrand on route to Washington.
In Tunis, Tunisia, PLO officials were elated about the prospect of seeing Arafat next to Rabin signing the peace accord, an agreement so controversial among Palestinians that it ranks as one of the toughest sales jobs of Arafat’s career.
“We’re going to see for the first time that Arafat, his dream will come true,” said one senior PLO official. “For him to stand on the White House steps and shake hands with Clinton and Rabin and be accepted in the new world order--this would be the fulfillment of his life.”
Other PLO officials said they hope the imagery of the signing will help to undercut the controversy and ill will of the debate over the peace plan, which many Palestinians see as a sellout.
“It’s tremendously politically significant for many Palestinians who, when they watch, will know that a new era has come, an old one is finished, that the Palestinian people at last after very, very long suffering and being ignored by the world are acknowledged to exist,” said another PLO leader. “As a people, they’re on the political map of the world.”
PLO officials said they hope there will be sufficient time to meet with congressional leaders to break in the newly restored dialogue between the PLO and the United States announced Friday by Clinton.
As a measure of the depth of the debate among Palestinian leaders, Abdullah Hourani became the fifth member of the PLO Executive Committee to resign to protest the peace agreement, which the committee approved Friday night on a 9-3 vote.
In Lebanon, the PLO’s Beirut representative, Shafik Hout, said he was making the suspension of his membership permanent because the PLO “can no longer be true to the resolutions and aims it was created for.”
Even the PLO’s own de facto foreign minister, Farouk Kaddoumi, who might have been a natural candidate to sign the accord if Arafat were not going himself, issued a statement saying the agreement on recognizing Israel is “violating the inalienable right of the Palestinian people.” Kaddoumi objected to the PLO’s pledge to try to halt the violence in the occupied territories.
In Dubai, the Organization of the Islamic Conference announced its support for the PLO-Israel agreement, Reuters news agency reported.
Also Saturday, the Associated Press reported from Amman, Jordan, that the PLO is directing members of its military wing, the Palestine Liberation Army, to assemble in the West Bank and Gaza from posts around the Arab world to act as a security force when the Israeli army withdraws.
Kempster reported from Washington and Murphy reported from Tunis, Tunisia. Times staff writer Tyler Marshall in Jerusalem also contributed to this report.
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