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Middle East: Clinton Visit Fuels Dispute Over Palestinian Statehood

Prague, 11 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton heads for Israel Saturday amid a dispute between Israeli and Palestinian officials over whether his trip constitutes implicit recognition of Palestinian aspirations for an independent state.

Clinton is due to arrive in Israel Sunday morning to meet Israeli leaders and to urge Israeli citizens in a speech to stick to the troubled Wye Accord he helped broker in October. The agreement calls for Israel to withdraw from a further 13 percent of the West Bank in return for Palestinian steps on security.

Then -- in a historic first -- Clinton will travel to Gaza City to attend a meeting of the Palestinian leadership as it reaffirms its support for the peace process. By doing so, he will become the first U.S. president ever to visit the Palestinian administered territories while in office.

Clinton, who has planned to make the trip since the Wye Accord was signed two months ago, said his visit to the Palestinian territories is intended only to demonstrate his commitment to the deal. That agreement, which restarted the peace process after it was stalled more than 18 months, has now itself been put on hold by the Israeli government amid a surge of violent Palestinian protests to try to secure the release of political prisoners from Israeli jails.

Analysts say that as the Wye Accord falters, both sides have seized on Clinton's trip as a symbol of the very different directions in which they want the peace process to go.

Palestinians want the U.S. president's visit to Gaza City to be a precedent for recognizing an independent Palestinian state, which Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has repeatedly said he will declare in May next year when the five-year-old Oslo interim peace accords expire.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is just as determined that Clinton's visit should not be seen that way. He said yesterday that Israel could never cede sovereignty over Palestinian airspace, water resources, or allow them to have an independent army.

Zoe Dannon-Gedal, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, D.C., says the tug-of-war over what Clinton's visit to Gaza symbolizes will continue throughout his stay in Israel.

"The Palestinians are working extremely hard getting ready for this trip and making it into as much a state visit as possible. They are producing posters of the (U.S.) president, they are having American flags made, they are planning all kinds of receptions and greetings that will certainly treat this as a state visit. And the part of it that is exciting to them is the idea of having an American president for the first time visiting them while they are governing their own territory to whatever extent they are ... and Israel will be looking for that symbolism and pointing it out (for criticism), so I don't think that the (U.S.) administration will have any help from within the region in playing down that kind of symbolism." In one measure of how much both sides worry about how Clinton's trip will be viewed, the Israeli government yesterday suggested that his late-night arrival time should be moved up from 01:00 Sunday local time (23:00 GMT Saturday). Officials said he should come several hours earlier so his arrival can be televised with a welcoming ceremony. According to correspondents, the welcoming ceremony would underline that he is on a state visit to Israel with only a sidetrip to the Palestinian territories.

How Clinton travels to Gaza City has also been the object of much attention. Originally, Clinton had planned to fly to the newly-opened Gaza airport aboard his presidential plane. But following Israeli objections, he now will make a lower profile arrival by helicopter.

In Gaza City, the U.S. president will address a meeting of the full Palestinian National Council -- the Palestinians' parliament-in-exile. According to the Wye accord, the Palestinians will be asked to "reaffirm their support" for the peace process with Israel and their rejection of clauses in the charter of the Palestinian Liberation Organization calling for the destruction of the Jewish state.

Clinton is also to hold a three-way meeting Monday with Netanyahu and Arafat to further press them to stick to their October peace agreement.

The U.S. president will wrap up his visit on Tuesday with stops at cultural attractions which are carefully balanced to maintain the stated impartiality of his trip.

Accompanied by his wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea, he will visit the Palestinian-controlled town of Bethlehem, which according to Christian tradition is the birthplace of Jesus Christ. The Clintons will also visit Masada, a historical site near the Dead Sea which symbolizes Jewish resistance to Roman rule.