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Arafat Chooses Words Carefully

The words Yasser Arafat didn't say spoke louder than the ones he did say.

The Palestinian leader called on world leaders during his United Nations address Monday to support Palestinian statehood. But he stopped short of threatening to unilaterally declare independence on May 4, 1999, the deadline for the completion of peace accords with Israel.

The carefully worded speech was a small victory for Israel, which has vehemently lobbied the world body against accepting Palestinian statehood. But for the Palestinians and the United States, a week of frenzied diplomatic activity ultimately ended without a deal for a long-overdue Israeli troop withdrawal, and the sides were vague about what progress, if any, was actually made.

A high profile summit Monday of Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and President Clinton produced only a schedule for more meetings, more attempts at breaking an 18-month deadlock that has been riddled with false deadlines and dashed expectations.

For Mr. Clinton, presiding over another public handshake between the two Mideast adversaries may have been a welcome break from the ongoing sex scandal that has plagued his presidency. But the summit bore little fruit other than the extension of an invitation to Arafat and Netanyahu to return to Washington next month to try to wrap up a deal for the troop withdrawal, while the clock ticks away on existing peace accords.

In Israel, opposition leader Ehud Barak called the summit "no more than another picture in the photo album." Barak, a former military chief, said the meetings were a waste of time and a continued absence of a peace deal was likely to lead to bloodshed.

Arafat has used the statehood issue as a wild card since the deadlock began in the spring of 1997, saying that he could unilaterally declare independence without an agreement from Israel.

The Palestinians, who have already agreed to U.S. proposals that would give them less land now than they had hoped for, also want Israel to carry out its commitments to withdraw from war-captured territory. It is the same thing they have asked for since accepting the U.S. plan this spring.

Also unchanged is the May 1999 deadline when the historic Oslo peace accords, signed five years ago on the White House lawn, will expire.

Albright said Monday the peace process "needs to be speeded-up," but did not set a time frame for the next round of Washington talks. When the two leaders return in mid-October, only six months will remain before the deadline.

By then, the two sides were to have tackled the most fateful issues of the Israeli-Arab conflict such as establishing fixed borders, deciding the future of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, and Jewish settlements.

But with the interim stage still unresolved, it is unlikely that the sides will meet the May deadline.

Arafat has said the day would not go by unrecognized by Plestinians. Without agreement over how to handle the date, what was intended to be a brass ring could instead become a trip wire for violent confrontation.

Written by Dafna Linzer