- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2000

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat renewed a pledge at the White House Thursday to declare a Palestinian state in three months time, with or without a successful conclusion to peace talks with Israel.

"We will declare a Palestinian state it is out of my hands the people want it," Mr. Arafat said in Arabic after an unusually long three-hour meeting with President Clinton.

The threat to declare a state is not new but was potentially embarrassing when repeated at the White House. Spokesman P.J. Crowley later warned both the Israelis and Palestinians not to take "unilateral steps" that could stand in the way of a peace deal.

There has been little progress during talks this week at Bolling Air Force Base, where negotiations stalled Wednesday over Israel's refusal to promise to release Palestinian prisoners and turn over most of the remaining West Bank.

With both sides committed to settling all the outstanding issues by Sept. 13, recent events on the ground have dramatically changed the environment of the talks in several ways:

• Syrian President Hafez Assad died Saturday, removing from the scene the biggest critic of Mr. Arafat's peace initiatives and the main sponsor of Palestinian rejectionist groups.

• The Israeli parliament has tentatively voted to dissolve itself and hold new elections, forcing Prime Minister Ehud Barak to try to construct a new coalition government with a majority that will support peace moves.

• Israeli forces unilaterally withdrew last month from their buffer zone in southern Lebanon, leaving a power vacuum on Israel's northern border and altering the balance of power between Israel and Syria.

Sources within the Washington talks say none of the developments has seriously affected the two teams' work, which is aimed at resolving such difficult final status issues as Jerusalem, water, refugees and borders.

Yet the bargaining teams have become snagged on much smaller issues such as the release of prisoners and land transfers.

On the South Lawn of the White House Thursday, Mr. Arafat offered lavish praise for the U.S. role in the peace process, but was surprisingly critical of the Israeli leader. "Mr. Barak lacks the desire to work with us in order to achieve a comprehensive peace in the region," he said.

Mr. Crowley rejected that analysis, saying Mr. Clinton was "satisfied that both leaders are very serious" about a peace agreement.

Mr. Arafat said his visit to Washington was a reminder that despite hang-ups in the negotiations, there is life in the 7-year-long journey toward a Palestinian state and "contacts will continue in various forums."

Last week's death in Syria of Mr. Assad served as a different sort of omen, highlighting the fact that Mr. Arafat is in poor health and Mr. Clinton has but seven months left in office.

"Both [Israelis and Palestinians] understand that time is not on their side," said Mr. Crowley.

The talks on interim and final-status issues were suspended Thursday morning while the heads of each Palestinian delegation joined Mr. Arafat and Mr. Clinton at the White House.

The interim talks at Bolling Air Force Base broke down Wednesday after the Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat complained Israel was willing to release only three out of 250 Palestinian prisoners, said Hasan Abdel Rahman, Washington representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

"The Israelis made proposals unacceptable to the Palestinian side on [the release of] political prisoners and further redeployment [of Israeli forces from West Bank land], which Mr. Barak promised to conduct by June 23," Mr. Rahman said in an interview.

"We said we'd wait till [Mr. Arafat] comes and we'll consult and come back to you."

The breakdown did not affect a separate set of talks on final status issues. Both sets of negotiations were to resume late Thursday and a source told the Associated Press they might be extended into the weekend.

Mr. Arafat, before leaving the White House for lunch at the home of Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, said he and Mr. Clinton had discussed the need to carry out provisions of the Oslo and Wye accords.

"The most important thing I discussed today was the precise and accurate implementation of the agreement signed," said Mr. Arafat, who wore his trademark checkered kefiya headscarf. "And we need the American role to ensure the success of the negotiations."

Asked whether the peace process was in danger, Mr. Clinton said: "No, I think it's an important moment, and we just have to keep working on it." But he would not discuss details.

"If we're going to make peace, we're going to have to deal with the difficult issues, and the less we say now, the better," Mr. Clinton said.

"I want to finish the job, and I'd like to see it finished on time."

Mr. Crowley. said U.S. negotiators participating in the talks were not applying "pressure" on the two sides but only helping "one understand the other."

He noted that Mr. Clinton had spoken to Mr. Barak by telephone for 40 minutes Wednesday evening.

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