Posted on March 03, 1997 in Washington Watch

President Arafat’s visit to Washington leads off a month of visits by Arab heads of state. He will be followed one week later by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and then one week later by King Hussein of Jordan.

The Palestinian leader’s visit will be his most extensive to the U.S. In four days he will visit three U.S. cities and participate in a number of official meetings and public and private events.

This is President Arafat’s sixth trip to the U.S., but it is the first that comes at the formal invitation of the U.S. President. Hence, this visit is the first in which the Palestinian leader will be accorded full Washington honors. He will meet with the President, Vice President, and the Secretaries of State and Commerce. There will be a private State Department Luncheon with the Secretary of State, the Director of AID and Ambassador Dennis Ross. Separate meetings have also been arranged with the leadership of both the Senate and House of Representatives as.

Arafat’s public appearances include: a dinner hosted by the Arab American community leadership, a “Newsmaker Breakfast” for the U.S. media hosted by the National Press Club, a business luncheon hosted by the Palestinian Economic Development and Investment Corporation (PEDICO) and the Washington-based Builders for Peace, a speech before the membership of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City, a gala reception at the United Nations, and a major foreign policy address at the James Baker Center in Houston, Texas.

Private events include: a ceremony at which President Arafat and the wife of the late Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown will receive a plaque dedicating the planned Marriott business center in Gaza in Mr. Brown’s name (Arafat will also award posthumanously to Secretary Brown the Star of Palestine, the highest Palestinian award); a private dinner for Washington notables (White House officials, Senators, and Congressmen) hosted by Washington businessman Hani Masri; meetings in Houston and New York City with former President Bush, Secretary of State James Baker, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Anan, and a number of prominent U.S. Jewish leaders.

Arafat will also make a number of major media appearances including the Larry King Show carried internationally on CNN.

This is how an Arab head of state visit should be done—maximum exposure for maximum impact. And it comes at just the right time.

President Clinton will warmly receive President Arafat at the White House and praise the constructive and statesman-like role he has played since the September Washington Summit. Clinton will express continuing U.S. support for Arafat and acknowledge his contributions to peace. The U.S. President will also use the occasion of this visit to formally launch the U.S.-Palestinian Commission that was first discussed between the two leaders one year ago.

The reception given to Arafat and the creation of the commission are concrete expressions of the growing partnership that is developing between the U.S. and the Palestinians—a development unthinkable just five years ago.

For his part, President Arafat will praise the leadership of the U.S. especially commending the role played by President Clinton in convening the September Washington Summit.

Arafat will also raise a number of critical concerns. Most pressing among the issues he will raise is the threat to Palestinian security, well-being, and aspirations posed by the recent decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to build a new settlement compound in Jabal Abu Ghenaim.

While settlements and road building on Palestinian land are always problematic, the Abu Ghenaim effort is particularly onerous because it threatens to complete the encirclement of Jerusalem by Jewish settlements, effectively shutting the expanded city borders from the rest of the West Bank.

Arafat will address this issue to the U.S. President and emphasize the political dangers it presents to the peace process and the Palestinian community.

Of critical concern as well to the Palestinian President will be the continued economic hardships endured by the Palestinian people. Closure and the impediments to normal economic activity created by Israeli policies will be a prime topic of discussion in both private meetings and public events. Arafat knows that if the now long-term unemployment rate of 50-60% in the West Bank and Gaza are not reversed there is little hope for sustaining the peace process.

While recent comments by Clinton Administration officials indicate U.S. sympathy with the Palestinians on both the Abu Ghenaim settlement issue and the issue of the Palestinian economy, Arafat will no doubt ask that sympathy be translated into concrete assistance to change both issues.

With the Administration, President Arafat will find a supportive partner, however, when the President of Palestine goes before Congress, he will encounter some opposition and even hostility.

Congressional opposition comes from a diverse group—those who, for a variety of personal and philosophical reasons, never accepted any recognition of the Palestinians as partners in the peace process and those who, for political reasons, seek to accommodate pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian attitudes of their hard-line Jewish or Christian fundamentalist constituents.

For weeks now this group has been collecting signatures an a Congressional letter to President Arafat urging him to honor his commitments to Israel. Specifically they call on him to, “complete the process of revising the Palestinian National Charter; combat terrorism and preventing violence; limit the size of the Palestinian police; and limit the exercise and location of Palestinian government activities.”

They end the letter with a warning that they, “will, of course, be closely watching the implementation of the aforementioned commitments.”

At last count the letter had 149 endorsers—which is actually surprisingly low for an anti-Palestinian initiative in Congress. It is even interesting to note that the tone of this letter is more cordial and diplomatic than previous Congressional efforts. Nevertheless, implicit in this letter is a threat to withhold the meager 75 million dollars in annual U.S. assistance to the Palestinians unless Arafat complies with their interpretation of his obligations. In effect, this is a U.S. version of the one-sided Likud notion of reciprocity, i.e. the Palestinians must comply, but not the Israelis. It is important to note that the Administration has repeatedly rejected these Congressional initiatives.

Despite a few such rough spots, the Arafat visit promises to be a successful endeavor. On an official level, it brings the Palestinians to the highest level yet of official recognition. Placing the Arafat visit on a par with visits by Netanyahu, Mubarak, and King Hussein and by establishing a vehicle to develop U.S.- Palestinian bi-lateral ties, while not yet establishing full recognition of Palestinian statehood, comes close to such recognition.

Arafat’s extensive exposure to U.S. public opinion and leaders also presents an extraordinary opportunity for him to shape U.S. political discourse on key issues of concern to the future of the Palestinian people. An intense focus on economic issues also promises to provide an important opportunity for Palestinians to make important breakthroughs in this area.

The peace process may be lagging behind in performance and Israeli behavior may be creating new provocations and hardships, but by building strong U.S. public support and developing personal ties with U.S. leaders Arafat’s visit can enhance the long-term effort to produce a more supportive U.S. role in the search for a just and balanced Middle East peace.

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