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Arafat's new respectability White House visit: Acting like a statesman, treated like one.

MANY AMERICANS have difficulty accepting Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority, as a member of civil society, much less an honored guest at the White House. This is the rogue terrorist who packed a gun at the United Nations, the world revolutionary and would-be destroyer of Israel. But there he was, Wednesday, neatly groomed beneath his trademark headscarf, polite and smiling, greeted by President Clinton with the most decorous courtesy.

And Mr. Clinton was right. Americans, Israelis and others had been demanding for years that the Palestine Liberation Organization eliminate calls for Israel's destruction from its charter. Mr. Arafat obligated the PLO to do it. The Palestine National Congress convened in Gaza under Israel's watchful eyes, despite the Israeli conflict in Lebanon. Mr. Arafat pleaded for revocation of the offending clauses. By overwhelming vote, it was done.

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Mr. Clinton's hospitality to Mr. Arafat, carefully orchestrated after reception of Israel's Prime Minister Shimon Peres, followed automatically. This was the carrot of carrot-and-stick fame. Act as a terrorist, get treated as one; act as a statesman, be treated accordingly.

The attention in Washington allowed Mr. Arafat to press complaints at Israel sealing the border and depriving 120,000 Palestinians of work. He complained that Western nations have not given the aid they promised. Part of his new relationship with the U.S. is simply the opportunity to be heard. Mr. Clinton responded to the first complaint by calling on Mr. Arafat to do a more effective job of preventing terrorism. He agreed to call on other nations to make good on their pledges.

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This was treating Mr. Arafat as the responsible head of a government with which the U.S. government has inevitable disagreements. In fact, the status of the Palestinian authority and its territory -- sovereign or not -- remains to be decided in negotiations with Israel that begin this month. But the body language of the reception implied that there is a place called Palestine and that this was its legitimate leader.

Americans had better get used to Palestine. The word has had many boundaries in the past 2,000 years, but now means the area governed by the Palestinian Authority. In American usage, the Occupied Territories, or Gaza and the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria will increasingly give way to Palestine. Mr. Arafat is not yet a head of a sovereign government. But he is getting there, through peace with Israel.

Pub Date: 5/03/96


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