Addressing a packed chamber of European lawmakers, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat said Wednesday that lasting Middle East peace is impossible as long as Israeli settlements remain in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"The Israeli settlements have always been . . . a major obstacle on the road of peace," he said. "Today, and I say it with regret, they have become an alternative to peace. Peace cannot be achieved . . . as long as these extremist hotbeds lie at every corner of the road."
But at a news conference after the speech, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization seemed to step away from his formal remarks, concentrating his criticism on the expansion of existing settlements, which he said violates last September's agreement on the terms of limited Palestinian self-rule in the occupied territories.
"We want an accurate, honest implementation of the (agreement), and that means no increase in the number of settlements, no enlarging of settlements," he said.
There are about 130 Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, home to about 120,000 Israeli nationals. Tension between Israeli settlers and Palestinians has been extremely high since the peace agreement was signed and since the Feb. 25 massacre by an extremist settler of about 30 Palestinians in a mosque in the West Bank town of Hebron temporarily halted the peace process.
Arafat said further delays in implementing last September's peace accords would be "catastrophic. . . . Leaving things to move as they did since last September will lead us all to a catastrophe which will kill any remaining hope (Palestinians) . . . might still have in the peace process itself."
His comments Wednesday came on the date agreed to last September in Washington for completion of Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho, the first two areas to receive a degree of Palestinian self-rule. The failure to meet this deadline is a clear setback for Arafat; he admitted that here Wednesday.
"Today is April 13, and what can I say to the Palestinian people today?" he asked rhetorically during the question period. "It's this delay which gives the extremists the opportunity to have good reasons to act."
He spoke only hours after six people died in a bombing attack in the northern Israeli town of Hadera. It was the latest in a series of terrorist attacks that have shaken, but not yet derailed, the peace process.
In the course of a 50-minute speech and half an hour of questions, Arafat often referred to "extremists on both sides" and used the word "regrettable" to describe the Hadera attack. "I don't know who carried it out, but it was carried out against innocent Israelis," he said.
His remarks were made to the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, a 32-nation organization with little direct political power that, in the post-World War II period, has nonetheless been a leading defender of human rights. The assembly is made up of more than 450 elected representatives from the member states' parliaments.
Attention to Arafat's appearance was distracted in part by the presence of another controversial political figure in the chamber--Russian ultranationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, visiting as part of an observer delegation from his country.
Despite what might appear to be shared anti-Jewish sentiments, the two seemed to have little interest in each other. At a reception Tuesday evening at the Russian Consulate, Zhirinovsky dismissed the PLO leader, stating, "Arafat is a terrorist."
As Arafat entered the parliamentary chamber before his speech Wednesday, Zhirinovsky was virtually the only person in the room who remained seated. He then walked out for about 10 minutes shortly after Arafat began speaking.