Yasser Arafat declared anew Sunday that he hopes to establish an independent Palestinian state--with Jerusalem as its capital--in May, despite intense opposition from Israel and pleas by the United States that he soft-pedal the issue.
His remarks, in a speech before a group of Arab Americans in a Washington suburb, were almost certain to exacerbate political tensions in Israel at a time when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu already is in trouble with right-wing members of his coalition over the new Palestinian-Israeli peace accord.
In Jerusalem, a spokesman for Netanyahu immediately denounced the statements. "These declarations by Arafat and threats of unilateral acts could bring about the collapse of the Oslo agreements," Aviv Bushinsky said, referring to the accords that are the basis of the peace process. "Jerusalem will not be divided anymore and will remain Israel's united capital forever."
Arafat's comments came as a surprise to the Clinton administration. Both U.S. officials and private analysts here have been urging the Palestinian leader to skirt the issue of an independent state, at least until the peace process has been fully put back on track.
The two sides are only beginning to put into effect the Wye River accord signed Oct. 23 in Washington. The administration is scheduled to open a donors' conference here today in an effort to help raise money for the Palestinians.
Under terms of the U.S.-brokered accord, Israel agreed to withdraw from an additional 13% of the West Bank in exchange for concrete Palestinian steps to crack down on Islamic militants who threaten Israel. The first of three stages of the pullback was carried out Nov. 20.
White House spokesman P.J. Crowley declined to assess the impact of Arafat's remarks. But he said the issue of Jerusalem and the political future of the Palestinians "is a matter for final-status" negotiations now underway "and should be addressed in that context."
Richard Haass, a former Bush administration national security advisor, called Arafat's comments "unhelpful." He warned that setting May 4 as a target date for an independent state raises fears that the Palestinians might be preparing to act unilaterally before the talks are completed.
Arafat's remarks came as friction between the Israelis and their Arab neighbors continued to mount.
In the last two weeks, seven Israeli soldiers have been killed in southern Lebanon by Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas. Netanyahu is under mounting public pressure to find a way to end Israel's costly occupation there.
Meanwhile, in the West Bank town of Jericho, a senior Palestinian official walked out of talks with Israel, saying the latest Mideast peace accord is in jeopardy over the Netanyahu government's expansion of Jewish settlements and its refusal to free only political prisoners in a series of inmate releases promised under the agreement. Negotiator Hassan Asfour demanded intervention by the United States.
The Palestinians have been angered by Israel's decision to include 150 common criminals in the first group of prisoners freed under the Wye accord. Already, angry demonstrations have been held in East Jerusalem and towns throughout the West Bank to accuse Israeli--and Palestinian leaders--of betraying Palestinian interests on the question. U.S. officials are warning that the issue could explode if not resolved.
"We have a crisis, and it's not a good sign that the Israelis are refusing to talk about it," said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who continued discussions with Israeli Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh after Asfour left. "So we have asked them not to release more prisoners until this is resolved."
Naveh said Netanyahu had made clear during the Wye negotiations that Israel would not release those it considered to have "blood on their hands" from attacks on Israelis, or those it regards as members of anti-Israeli Islamic groups.
Israel has said it does not hold enough political prisoners who fit the criteria and thus must add some common criminals to the list of those to be released. Palestinians respond that far more than the required 750 political prisoners remain in Israeli jails and are not members of Hamas or other militant organizations.
Meanwhile, Arafat's decision to reiterate his intention to make East Jerusalem the capital of a future Palestinian state is expected to heighten concern in Israel.
In what appeared to be an effort to mollify some Israelis, Arafat proposed that "Western Jerusalem could be the capital of Israel." Analysts saw little or no likelihood that any such plan would win Israeli backing.
The idea has been floated before by some analysts as a way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute over Jerusalem, on the notion that while Israel has claims on West Jerusalem, it cares less about the part of the city that is important to the Arabs. But every Israeli government has reiterated Israel's claim to both sides of Jerusalem, and public opinion has consistently supported keeping the city united.
Arafat has based his claim to control over the eastern half of Jerusalem on the fact that it was held by Jordan before Israel captured it in the 1967 Six-Day War, and it was specifically designated by the U.N. Security Council for eventual return to the Palestinians.
Arafat renewed his pledge Sunday that the Palestinians would open their part of the city to Israelis. "We're not going to erect a Berlin Wall between the two passages," he said. He also pledged that "all religions" would have access to Jerusalem.
Arafat has outlined his hopes for declaring a Palestinian state many times before, but Sunday marked the first time since the signing of the Wye River accord that he has raised the issue before an international audience.
The Palestinian leader has noted repeatedly that the May 4, 1999, date was set by the 5-year-old Oslo accord, which laid out a timetable for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, including talks on establishing an independent Palestinian state.
Although the negotiations on statehood are supposed to be completed by then, it is obvious that the two sides are too far apart to comply. The Wye River accord revived the talks, but they are expected to continue beyond the May 4 deadline.
The Clinton administration has been urging Israel and the Palestinians to tone down the rhetoric.
President Clinton is scheduled to visit the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip next month in a bid to push the negotiations along and try to encourage foreign investors.
Times staff writer Rebecca Trounson in Jerusalem contributed to this report.