Secretary of State Warren Christopher, in a move that will bolster Palestinian hopes for an independent state in the West Bank, said Sunday that he will travel to Jericho this week to meet with the newly established Palestinian self-governing authority there.
By making the unusual visit, only days after veterans of the Palestine Liberation Army took over policing of the West Bank's Jericho from the Israeli forces that had occupied the area since 1967, Christopher said he hopes to boost the Palestinians' confidence and trumpet the first concrete results of their long-running peace negotiations.
He also intends to urge them to organize their administration quickly, without waiting for Yasser Arafat and other Palestine Liberation Organization chieftains to arrive, aides said. Indeed, the visit appears aimed partly at boosting the prestige of moderate West Bank members of the Palestinian Authority, such as Faisal Husseini, whom Christopher praised for joining the new governing group.
"I think it'll be very significant for the Palestinian leadership," Christopher told reporters traveling with him to Damascus, where he was meeting with Syrian President Hafez Assad.
Officially, the Clinton Administration still holds to a longstanding U.S. policy of opposing an independent Palestinian state. But the symbolism of Christopher's visit--an official call with Palestinian flags flying and security provided by PLO police--will inescapably look like a form of early recognition for a future republic of Palestine.
State Department officials said their one-day visit to Jericho will probably take place Tuesday. Asked why Christopher will rely on the Palestinians for security, a senior official replied that there is little choice: "The Israelis are already out of there."
He said Christopher wants "to dramatize the kind of changes that are happening on the ground--the promise of the agreement being translated into reality."
"For the first time in Palestinian history, you're seeing the Palestinians assuming responsibility for self-government," he said. "We think that's a very important development."
At the same time, he said, Christopher hopes to rally both Palestinian and Israeli support for further implementing the self-government agreement.
"Palestinians need to see that the realities have in fact changed on the ground," he said. "Israelis need to see the Palestinians live up to the commitments that they made, that they do all that they can to stop violence, that the Palestinians can in fact deliver, and that Israeli security doesn't suffer for it."
Christopher also wants to encourage the Palestinian Authority to take the reins of government quickly and build a bureaucracy that can handle the more than $2 billion in foreign aid that has been promised for the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the official said.
"We will be asking, 'How well structured are you to deal with donors and donor concerns?' " he said. "What matters is implementation."
He said the Palestinians and the World Bank are "fairly close" to an agreement that would release $120 million in reconstruction funds and $35 million to support the start-up costs of the new authority.
The Clinton Administration and other aid donors have been visibly impatient with Arafat's balky, personalized leadership of the Palestinian Authority.
Arafat is formally chairman of the governing group, but he has said that he will not arrive in Jericho until mid-June.
In the PLO leader's absence, Christopher appeared pleased at a chance to bolster the authority of Husseini and other leaders from the West Bank and Gaza Strip who have been doing business with the United States longer than Arafat.
"If we had waited a long time," the official said, it could have pushed implementation "down the road."
The plan being implemented is the May 4 agreement signed in Cairo for Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Jericho. That was intended as an initial step, after which Israel and the Palestinians will agree on terms for the transfer of other parts of the West Bank.
The overall withdrawal is occurring under last September's peace agreement between Israel and the PLO.
On previous visits, Christopher met with Palestinian leaders in the eastern, predominantly Arab half of Jerusalem--the city both Palestinians and Israelis claim as their capital.
Christopher consulted with the Israeli government before deciding to visit Jericho, an aide said, and the Israelis did not object.
Christopher may also meet with Arafat in Cairo later in the week, the aide said.
Christopher held a round of talks Sunday evening with Syria's Assad on his tentative peace negotiations with Israel but reported no immediate results.
"This is the beginning of a process with slow going ahead," Christopher said.
But Syria showed an unexpected sign of possible flexibility in an editorial in the government-run newspaper Tishrin (October), diplomats said.
Using the customary truculent tone of Syrian diplomacy, the newspaper said, "Syria is not ready to deal with any proposals that do not include a clear commitment for withdrawal from all of the Golan within a reasonable and acceptable time."
Syria has long demanded a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, captured in 1967, as the price of peace. But never before, one diplomat said, has Damascus said publicly that it is willing to settle for withdrawal in "a reasonable and acceptable time."
Israel has offered to withdraw from the Golan over a period of five to eight years.
The Syrian statement appeared to signal that while that is too long, Damascus is ready and willing to haggle.