RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — On the 10th anniversary of an ambitious peace accord whose goals were never achieved, Yasser Arafat on Saturday urged Israel to return to peace talks — days after Israeli leaders threatened to send him into exile in response to Palestinian suicide bombings.
As thousands of schoolchildren rallied outside his battered, sandbagged headquarters, Arafat told visiting foreign diplomats that the Palestinians were facing their most difficult moment since the Oslo Accords were signed Sept. 13, 1993, on the White House lawn.
"The problem is not just my problem and the threats that Israel has made to eliminate or remove me," Arafat said. "The problem, the real danger, is the intent of the Israeli government to cancel the Palestinian partner and to eliminate the presence of the Palestinian Authority."
Israel blames Arafat for the collapse of peace efforts, assigning him at least indirect responsibility for the relentless terror attacks against Israelis. In the wake of twin suicide bombings that killed 15 this week, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's security Cabinet decided in principle to "remove" him.
The vaguely worded decision seems to leave open the options of exiling, killing or arresting Arafat — or further isolating him in the office where he has been confined for a year-and-a-half by cutting phone lines and barring visitors. It allows Sharon the right to decide without further convening his ministers.
Thousands of Palestinians have rallied in recent days to support Arafat, and Palestinian officials have warned that a move against the veteran Palestinian leader — still a national symbol to many, if not most, Palestinians — would carry disastrous consequences.
In a speech before about a dozen diplomats from European, Asian and Arab countries, Arafat urged pressure on Israel to end its killings of militant leaders and stop settlement-building in the West Bank and Gaza.
"The duty of all of us is . . . to reach a peace that is just, that is permanent and that is comprehensive for the whole area, for the sake of our children," Arafat said. Addressing Israel, he said: "Come to peace, come to make peace together."
The Oslo Accords are named after the Norwegian capital that hosted months of secret talks preceding the festive signing in President Clinton's presence on the White House lawn.
The deal included mutual recognition between Israel and Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization and allowed for the creation of a Palestinian autonomy government in the West Bank and Gaza. Tough issues — the fate of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees — were left for "final status" talks.
In 1994, Arafat returned from a quarter-century's exile. He was elected in 1996 to lead a Palestinian Authority that ultimately ruled two-thirds of Gaza and almost half the West Bank — in disconnected islands of territory that included the vast majority of the Palestinian population.
But the final status talks fell apart about three years ago. Arafat did not accept then-premier Ehud Barak's offers of a Palestinian state in Gaza and most of the West Bank, with a foothold in Jerusalem — and Israel rejected the demand for a "right of return" for refugees and descendants to Israel.
More than 800 Israelis and almost 2,500 Palestinians have since been killed in violence.
Israeli newspapers ran weekend retrospectives on the Oslo Accords, with most commentators blaming the Palestinians for rejecting a reasonable offer and turning to terrorism. But some noted Israel's role in the failure to build trust — the Jewish settler population doubled in the past decade — and some pointed to the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish ultranationalist opposed to the peacemaking as the turning point.
In a poll in the Maariv daily, only 31 percent said the Oslo Accords should have been signed, and 54 percent said it was a mistake. The poll of 597 Israelis had a 4 percent margin of error.
But in a rueful article entitled "Where we might have been," the mass-circulation Yediot Ahronot daily compared the three years of prosperity that followed Oslo — Israel's economy grew more than 25 percent — with the malaise, savage bloodletting and economic collapse of today.
"There was hope. There was a euphoric feeling," wrote Sima Kadmon. "We sat in cafes. We didn't call our kids every five minutes ... We started to believe we'll be a normal country one day."
Over the past three years, Israeli salaries have dropped by more than 10 percent. Tourism has collapsed and hundreds of thousands are jobless. On the Palestinian side, about half the workforce is unemployed and Israeli travel restrictions — even between West Bank towns — make life a misery for millions.
Despite the despair of the situation, Palestinians continued rallying for Arafat on Saturday. Thousands turned out in the West Bank city of Hebron. An evening march was planned in Gaza.
One of the noisiest outpourings was right outside his sandbagged office, where thousands of children rallied in a courtyard, surging toward Arafat when he waved and blew kisses from a window.
"With our souls and our blood we defend Abu Ammar," they said, using Arafat's nom de guerre.
A spirited Arafat briefly came to the front steps to correct them: "With our souls and our blood we defend Palestine, Palestine, Palestine."
Beaming, he saluted and went back inside. He later leaned from a window, blew kisses and flashed "V" victory signs at the crowd.
"I'm very happy because this is the first time I've seen President Arafat," said Abdel Zakaria, 13.
The Israelis, he said, "know that he is strong and can push them out of Palestine, so they want to expel him."
Earlier, in the West Bank city of Nablus, an 80-year-old man died from bullet wounds, said doctors at Rafidya Hospital. The man, Fathi Bolbol, apparently went to the window when he heard a gun battle between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen, and was shot, his son said.