Clinton supports Arafat, questions Netanyahu's timing
March 3, 1997
Web posted at: 9:06 p.m. EST (0206 GMT)
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Yasser Arafat came to Washington for a two-day visit Monday and tried to rally the U.S. administration against an Israeli housing development slated for construction in Jerusalem.
The Palestinian leader claims that the construction will only further isolate Arab-occupied east Jerusalem from the West Bank.
He succeeded in getting some U.S. support for his position after a visit with President Bill Clinton. "I would have preferred the decision not have been made because I don't think it builds confidence. It builds mistrust," Clinton said of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to build the new Jewish neighborhood.
The U.S. has not spoken out against the housing projects, per se; the administration is keeping its views on the legality of the projects and the future of east Jerusalem private in line with its mediator role, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said.
The president's stance was more against the timing of Netanyahu's decision, which comes at a crucial juncture of the Middle East peace process.
By Friday, Israel is supposed to conclude the first stage of a new pullback on the West Bank, yielding control to the Palestinians. And on Wednesday, Netanyahu is due in Cairo to see Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about improving stagnant relations with the Arab country.
Netanyahu offers to build homes for Arabs, too
In Netanyahu's view, Israel can take unilateral actions altering the character of Jerusalem before negotiating with Arafat's Palestinian Authority.
However, he included a bargaining point in his plans. The homes would be built in a largely barren area that was part of the West Bank before Israel expanded its capital. Netanyahu has offered to build new homes for Arabs in the city, as well, and to accelerate an Israeli withdrawal from rural areas on the West Bank.
Arafat, speaking on CNN's Larry King Live, said that was not what he or any Palestinian wanted. "According to the agreement between me and Mr. (Yitzhak) Rabin (the former Israeli prime minister), not one single house was to be added, for Arabs or for Jews ... in the settlements," he said.
"I'm not asking for the world. I want accurate and honest implementation of what had been agreed upon," he said.
Palestinians, dissatisfied with the plan, went on a general strike Monday that shut down schools and shops. Public transportation came to a halt and workers stayed away from their jobs throughout the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.
Arafat has indicated he might declare an independent Palestinian state unilaterally if Netanyahu doesn't back off his plans. In reality, there is little Arafat can do, short of resorting to violence -- a move he has carefully steered away from.
"Any actions like this housing project are bound to make it more difficult for the Palestinians to go ahead with the negotiations," said Samuel Lewis, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel. "Yet actually, they have no choice. Our real goal is to keep violence from occurring and keep the negotiations puttering on forward as they are slowly doing at present."
Arafat, Albright also meet
Also Monday, Arafat and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright jointly announced formation of a committee to regularize contact on trade, commerce, technology and cultural affairs.
"It's a fairly strong demonstration of our commitment that the Palestinians are partners of the United States, they are friends of the United States, that we are committed to helping the Palestinian people achieve a greater measure of economic prosperity," said U.S. State Department Spokesman Nicholas Burns. "They face a number of challenges."
Correspondent Steve Hurst contributed to this report.
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