More recognition, more legitimacy, and more kudos for Arafat

In the months since signing the Wye agreement and "revoking" the Palestinian covenant in US President Bill Clinton's presence, Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat has been rewarded by a palpable shift in US policy, at the expense of Israel.

Arafat has capitalised on the hiatus in the Oslo process--largely suspended due to the forthcoming Israeli elections--to solidify relations with the US, while scoring new successes in continuing efforts to isolate Israel diplomatically elsewhere.

In the months since Wye, Arafat has enjoyed repeated, open access to Clinton and his administration, even at a time when Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon have been kept at arm's length. He has been received at international donor conferences and economic forums, securing pledges of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from an array of countries, many of which already are on record as supporting Palestinian statehood.

The PA also appears to be winning on the important issue of compliance with the commitments negotiated at Wye. On January 6, State Department Spokesman James Rubin claimed that Palestinian leaders "have, in fact, worked hard to implement many of their commitments … It is the Israelis who have not fulfilled any of their Phase Two obligations by failing to pull back the further redeployment as required." Even Vice President Al Gore took a swipe at Israel by referring to attempts to add "new conditions" to Wye in a speech to the left-leaning Israel Policy Forum.

Adding to the erosion in Israel's standing is a high-profile dispute with US authorities over charges Arafat released 60 terrorists at the end of the Muslim fast of Ramadan - including 5 involved in the murder of Americans.

PA figures interpret recent American moves as heralding a new era of US-Palestinian relations, virtually signaling de facto US recognition of a future Palestinian state. Arafat deputy Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) stated that "there were many signs in [Clinton's December visit to Gaza] that the US is rapidly proceeding toward equality and neutrality between the Israeli and the Palestinian positions." Fellow PA negotiator Nabil Sha'ath added, "I think that from now on there is a balance between the strategic Israeli-American alliance and the Palestinian-American friendship" (quotes courtesy of MEMRI).

Clinton has done much to contribute to these perceptions. At the Wye River signing ceremony at the White House, Clinton thanked Arafat for "decades and decades and decades of tireless representation of the longing of the Palestinian people to be free, self-sufficient, and at home." And as Arafat, Netanyahu and the late King Hussein were seated at a historic table used for many such signing occasions, Clinton asserted that all three shared in common "distinguished military careers." Palestinian officials later hailed such statements as "an acknowledgement that the years of Palestinian armed struggle are not considered terrorism".

In his highly-significant visit to Gaza, Clinton took pains to balance the suffering of Palestinians and Israelis. "Neither side has a monopoly on pain or virtue," intoned Clinton. "[B]oth share a history of oppression and dispossession."

Troubled by the pro-Palestinian tilt and repackaging of Arafat, some Christian and Jewish groups rebuffed the annual US National Prayer Breakfast for inviting Arafat to the respected interfaith function in early February. Breakfast Chairman, Representative Steve Largent (R-OK), defended the invitation but, realising it was being exploited for political purposes, personally requested that Clinton not meet with Arafat while attending the event. The two leaders met anyway for an off-the-record "informal conversation."

The PA topped its string of diplomatic successes by garnering overwhelming UN support for convening a special conference on the Fourth Geneva Convention in July.

Arafat's next step: how to wring the most concessions possible out of the US and European Union, in return for agreeing to delay declaring an independent Palestinian state beyond May 4.

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