PARIS — Yasser Arafat set off on a multi-country tour Saturday to drum up support for the Palestinians in the Middle East peace process, shrugging off a warning by President Clinton not to declare an independent state and charging Israel with spreading lies.
Speaking at the airport in the Gaza Strip before his departure, Arafat said his trip aimed to counter "Israeli propaganda" about why the Camp David summit failed. When the two-week meeting ended Tuesday, Israel blamed the Palestinians for lacking the flexibility to forge a historic peace deal at the U.S.-mediated summit.
"They (the Israelis) are trying to put (out) big lies about what happened at Camp David," Arafat said. He did not elaborate, but the Palestinians have rejected the Israelis' portrayal of them since the summit as inflexible.
In Paris, Arafat met for an hour with French leader Jacques Chirac. Afterward, he dismissed threats by Clinton that Washington would review its relationship with the Palestinians if Arafat presses ahead with plans to unilaterally declare an independent state on Sept. 13.
"I would like to remind Clinton and the rest of the world that in fact we should already have proclaimed an independent Palestinian state — according to the Oslo accords — on May 4, 1999," he said.
That was the deadline Arafat had originally set for declaring statehood if no peace deal had been sealed. He subsequently set a new date for this September.
"But after advice from our friends, including President Clinton, we delayed this date until after Israeli elections," Arafat said.
In an interview broadcast Friday on Israel Television, Clinton said he was considering, in light of recent events, moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Such a move would be a coup for Israel: Only a few countries have accepted Israel's claim to the whole city, and Clinton has hedged on making a firm decision on the embassy in light of vehement Palestinian opposition.
In the interview, Clinton also said Arafat did not go as far as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in making significant steps toward an agreement at Camp David. Taleb Es-Sana, an Arab Israeli lawmaker, said the Palestinian leader was "not very happy" with Clinton's comments.
Resentment over the Clinton interview spilled into the Palestinian streets Saturday in demonstrations in the West Bank town of Nablus. Some 300 Arafat loyalists marched through the streets, led by a group of masked young men who held M-16 guns and Kalashnikov rifles and burned a poster of Clinton labeled "Hypocrite Zionist."
They also burned a poster of Barak.
About 100 Palestinian students protested at Nablus' An Najah University, burning Israeli flags and listening to speakers condemn Clinton's comments.
Clinton's comments reverberated elsewhere in the region, as well, reawakening Arab fears and casting doubt on U.S. impartiality.
"We regret this flagrant American bias toward Israel," said Jordan's second largest newspaper, ad-Dustour, in an editorial entitled: "The dishonest referee unveils his bias."
On the streets of Amman, the capital, the tone was less measured.
"Without Jerusalem, there will be no peace with the Arabs and the only solution then is resistance," said jeweler Ibrahim Hreishah, 32.
Dr. Issa Musharbash, 50, a dentist, said Clinton's remarks "prove that Jews control the world, including America."
The Palestinians demand sovereignty over traditionally Arab east Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war.
Israel has long insisted that Jerusalem remain united under exclusive Israeli sovereignty. But at the Camp David summit, Barak reportedly offered the Palestinians control of Arab neighborhoods just inside Jerusalem, a vaguely defined "special regime" in the Muslim and Christian quarters of the walled Old City, administrative autonomy over Jerusalem's Muslim holy places and unhindered access to Al-Aqsa, a holy mosque. Palestinian negotiators reportedly rejected the offer as not going far enough.
Although the summit's failure has put future peacemaking in question, both sides have pledged to continue their efforts. Palestinian and Israeli negotiators were to resume interim peace talks Sunday in Jerusalem.
After visiting France, which assumed the six-month rotating European Union presidency this month, Arafat is expected to travel to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Tunisia.