U.S. resumes discussions with the PLO Arafat, Rabin still could attend ceremony Monday


WASHINGTON -- The United States opened contacts with a high-level PLO official yesterday as the Clinton administration held out the prospect that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat would join Monday in the White House signing of their breakthrough accord.

The contacts came within hours of President Clinton's announcement that its dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization would resume after the "historic and honorable compromise" that led to Israel recognizing the organization both it and Washington had called terrorist.

The U.S. contacts yesterday included extending an invitation to Monday's signing, delivered to PLO headquarters, and a meeting in Washington later in the day. The dialogue is expected to be broader and more important than earlier contacts, cut off by President George Bush after a 1990 PLO terror attack that Mr. Arafat refused to condemn.

Formal U.S. recognition of the PLO is complicated by certain congressionally imposed legal barriers.

The administration is planning a media extravaganza on the South Lawn at 11 a.m. Monday that a senior official said is intended to shine a spotlight on "those who have crossed the psychological threshold" toward reconciliation between Middle East enemies.

The signing is expected to draw 1,000 people, including world leaders and former U.S. officials. To be signed is a framework leading to a phased Israeli withdrawal and establishment of a Palestinian governing body in much of the occupied territories, starting with Gaza and Jericho.

The PLO Executive Committee in Tunis approved the agreement yesterday. Committee member Mohammed Zohdi Nashashibi told Reuters that a "large majority" of the 12 members present endorsed the pact. But three others on the 18-member #i committee resigned in protest.

Jordan's King Hussein predicted yesterday that Jordan and Israel would formally disclose agreement Monday or Tuesday on a broad agenda for future negotiations. That pact, near completion for months, has been kept under wraps until an agreement is signed between Israel and the Palestinians.

A senior U.S. official was pessimistic, however, about an early breakthrough between Israel and its principal enemy, Syria. The king was more hopeful.

An Israeli spokesman said that Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who oversaw secret negotiations that led to the deal, would sign for Israel, but a high U.S. administration figure said last night that Mr. Rabin may show up.

Although Mr. Arafat told French state television he would "like to be there," the absence of Mr. Rabin meant that the PLO probably would be represented at a lower rank: either by its foreign affairs chief, Farouk Kaddoumi, or another senior PLO official, Abu Mazzin.

Mr. Clinton called four Arab leaders by phone, Saudi Arabian King Fahd, Syrian President Hafez el Assad, Lebanese President Elias Hrawi and King Hussein. The calls marked Mr. Clinton's deepest involvement in Middle East affairs since Israel disclosed its deal with the PLO two weeks ago.

But it wasn't clear who would be sent to represent Arab governments, except for Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, whose nation is already at peace with Israel and is a major behind-the-scenes player in the peace process.

Mr. Moussa will be accorded a prominent spot along with Norway's foreign minister, Johan Jorgen Holst, who conducted the secret negotiations, and Andrei Kozyrev of Russia, co-sponsor of the peace process.

Mr. Clinton also invited the five living former presidents. Mr. Bush, who launched the peace process leading to the 1991 Madrid summit, and Jimmy Carter,who shepherded Israel and Egypt into a peace accord signed at the White House in 1979, both accepted. Gerald R. Ford will attend an evening event. Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III is also expected.

Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan will not attend.

In other developments:

* The PLO has received a tacit commitment from Israel to freeze Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, PLO official Nabil Shaath said in Washington.

* A leader of the fundamentalist Hamas organization said Muslim militants would not attack PLO supporters over the peace agreement but said attacks on Israeli troops in the occupied territories would persist. Abdel-Aziz Rantisi is one of nearly 400 Islamic activists deported by Israel last December.

* Four Israeli-backed militiamen were wounded when a hail of almost 300 mortar rounds blasted their south Lebanon positions. Hard-liners had vowed to step up attacks against Israel both in south Lebanon and the occupied territories.

In retaliation, 50 shells were fired into the hills where the guerrillas are active. There were no casualty reports.

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