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Arafat’s diplomatic tour is a bust so far

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JERUSALEM — Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's diplomatic offensive — he has visited 15 countries in 18 days — is shaping up as a disappointment.

Arab leaders have been cold to the idea of a special Arab summit — the ultimate brotherly embrace Arafat so badly sought after the United States blamed him for the failure of last month's Israel-Palestinian summit talks.

The Palestinian leader has also been unable to win international backing for a unilateral proclamation of Palestinian statehood in the event a peace treaty is not concluded by its Sept. 13 deadline.

Palestinian officials say U.S. pressure is to blame.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Edward Walker has been briefing Arab leaders on the U.S. positions and urging them not to do anything to lessen chances for a resumption of negotiations.

Arafat adviser Nabil Amr said many countries empathize with Arafat but are unwilling to defy Washington. "No one can ignore that many countries have strong relations with the United States and they don't want these relations to be affected," he said.

During Arafat's tour, including stops in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, he was told by many heads of state he should wait and give peace a chance to move forward, Amr said.

Hinting at the Palestinians' disappointment, peace negotiator Ahmed Qureia told reporters this week that while the Arab world in principle backed Arafat's refusal to compromise over Jerusalem, "we, the Palestinians, want more from the Arab nations, and we hope they will contribute more."

Arafat's top priority remains a peace agreement with Israel, his aides say. However, he lacks leverage — something an Arab summit and international backing for a unilateral statehood declaration, to be used as a warning, might have given him.

Now Arafat faces Israel alone, and his options appear increasingly unappealing.

If he softens his demands on Jerusalem and agrees to less than full sovereignty over the traditionally Arab eastern sector of the city, he can expect to be ostracized by many Arab and Islamic nations. East Jerusalem is home to important Islamic shrines.

If Arafat sticks to his position, he may be held responsible for a failure of the peace talks. At Camp David, President Clinton gave Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak credit for going beyond what Israeli governments had offered in the past and proposing limited Palestinian sovereignty in parts of east Jerusalem. Participants say Clinton angrily left the room when the Palestinians, insisting their views on Jerusalem were known, did not present an offer of their own.

In his tour of the Arab world, Arafat has been encouraged to stand tough on Jerusalem. Even at the risk of straining ties with Washington, Egypt has scoffed at U.S. and Israeli requests that it use its influence to soften the Palestinians' position.

However, beyond words, there has been little else.

With no efforts being made to convene an Arab summit, the most Arafat can hope for is a discussion on Jerusalem during the regular biannual meeting of the Arab League's foreign ministers in Cairo on Sept. 3 and 4.

Even Arafat's fallback plan — an emergency gathering of the member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference — is not working out.

Iran, the current leader of the 54-member OIC, had no comment when Arafat raised the idea during a Thursday visit that began with what appeared to be an intentional snub; the Palestinian leader, welcomed around the world as a head of state, was received at Tehran's airport by the Iranian deputy foreign minister.

Israel has only belatedly caught up with Arafat's diplomacy.

Barak's senior policy adviser, Danny Yatom, last week reportedly made secret visits to Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. On Thursday, Israel's chief peace negotiator, Shlomo Ben-Ami, began a European tour, closely following the itinerary of Arafat envoy Nabil Shaath.

Despite the setbacks, Shaath described Palestinian diplomacy as a success. He said European leaders have reiterated their support for U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which stipulates an Israeli withdrawal from occupied land and which the Palestinians interpret as a demand that Israel relinquish east Jerusalem.

The Palestinian envoy scoffed at Israeli comments that Arafat's travels are a waste of time. "If this is a waste of time, why are they following us from place to place?" Shaath said.