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ARAFAT: A TERRORIST FULLY TRANSFORMED

A natty, neatly barbered Yasser Arafat, having traversed the path from guerrilla leader to peacemaker, had his turn on the White House stage Wednesday, hearing himself praised by the American president for his courage and his commitment to peace.

The meeting with President Clinton lasted only 45 minutes, but it was Arafat's first one-on-one meeting with an American president without an Israeli leader alongside.Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres had pre-election meetings with Clinton on Sunday and Tuesday; on Wednesday it was Arafat's turn to pose in the Oval Office, in an extraordinary symbolic transformation for a man who once wore his pistol to the United Nations and led an umbrella movement responsible for the deaths of hundreds in bombings and hijackings and even for the slaying of Israeli Olympic athletes.

It was Clinton's way of acknowledging that Arafat had met his promise to remove any reference to armed struggle and the destruction of Israel from the charter of the Palestine Liberation Organization. And it was another way for Clinton to associate the power of the United States with those "who are taking risks for peace," as one White House official said Wednesday, describing Peres and Arafat as being in "a partnership of risk" deserving of U.S. support.

"I want to applaud the action Chairman Arafat has taken in keeping the commitment he made" to change the charter, Clinton said. "Under difficult circumstances, he kept that commitment."

A smiling, almost giddy, Arafat in turn praised Clinton for "his essential role" in the search for Middle East peace.

By appearing with Arafat, the president was implicitly supporting the election of Peres, the Palestinian's partner in the peace process.

Just one week ago, the governing Labor Party dropped its longstanding opposition to a separate Palestinian state. Clinton said Wednesday that the issue was up to the Palestinians and Israelis to decide.

Clinton and Arafat also discussed an early resumption of Israeli-Syrian peace talks and the importance of Israeli-Palestinian talks, scheduled to begin this weekend, on the "final status" of Jerusalem and a final withdrawal of Israeli troops from Hebron, the last major city Israel occupies in the West Bank.

They agreed to form a joint Palestinian-American commission to handle issues including U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority and easing the impact of Israel's security measures in the West Bank and Gaza on ordinary Palestinians, thousands of whom still cannot travel to their jobs in Israel.

Clinton promised to urge other Western and Arab donors to live up to their promises to provide some $2.4 billion in aid to the Palestinians.

The United States has promised $100 million a year for five years to aid the Palestinian Authority.