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Arafat may lose White House link

Bush blames the Palestinian leader for arms shipment

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WASHINGTON — The White House lawn, where Yasser Arafat once found his longed-for legitimacy, could soon be fenced off to him.

President Bush, accepting Israel's claims that Arafat is ultimately responsible for a boatload of weapons seized earlier this month, is considering cutting off relations with the Palestinian leader.

Earning the recognition of the world's only superpower has been a high achievement for Arafat and remains central to Mideast peace-dealing. It led Bush in November to outline a vision of Palestinian statehood that was the most explicit ever in embracing Palestinian aspirations.

In exchange, Arafat forced militants to observe a cease-fire for a short while. But goodwill dissipated after Israeli commandoes seized a ship hauling tons of weapons. Arafat insists he was not involved in their purchase; Bush says he is "enhancing terror."

"This is now the lowest point in the relationship between Arafat and the United States" since the heady peacemaking days of 1993, said Shibley Telhami, a Brookings Institution scholar who has studied the conflict for 20 years.

On a sunny September day in 1993, Arafat and the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin made a promise of peace between their people and sealed the deal with by awkwardly clasping hands to shouts and applause from thousands gathered on the White House lawn.

That was the culmination of Arafat's decadeslong struggle for legitimacy. For 19 years before, he had been denied entry into the United States and had been snubbed by American officialdom.

The first breakthrough came in 1988. Having earned world sympathy a year into the first Palestinian uprising, Arafat accepted U.N. resolutions that implicitly recognized Israel's right to exist. The United States responded by recognizing his Palestinian Liberation Organization.

Ties were on a low level — the U.S. ambassador in Tunis met with midlevel Palestinian officials — but with Arafat's Soviet patrons fading, it was a much needed ticket to Western legitimacy. Within months, European leaders welcomed the former pariah as a statesman.

Under U.S. pressure for a more explicit recognition of Israel, Arafat told a French reporter that articles in the Palestinian charter calling for Israel's destruction were "caduc," a little-used French word meaning "outmoded."

Israeli officials pointed out that "outmoded" fashions had a habit of coming back, but Arafat refused to get more specific.

It was the first sign of an ambiguity — attempting to please the United States while winking at Palestinian hard-liners — that came to characterize Arafat's peacemaking. Instead of assuaging the Americans, he often frustrated them.

"At most, Arafat has been prepared to take half-measures," said Martin Indyk, a former senior U.S. diplomat involved in Clinton-era negotiations who now favors punitive measures against Arafat.

In 1991, flush with its Gulf War victory, the first Bush administration convened talks in Madrid and Israeli and Palestinian negotiators sat at the same table for the first time.

The 1992 election of Rabin, an Israeli hawk turned dove, accelerated the negotiations, and in 1993 history was made on the White House lawn.

The Palestinians granted Israel limited recognition — Israel's "existence" was fine, they said, but its "right to exist" was still taboo — and Israel handed Arafat most of the Gaza Strip and a foothold in the West Bank.