Arafat: U.S. Supports Statehood

In Italy on Sunday, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said he had U.S. and European support for declaring a state if Israel and the Palestinians failed to reach a final peace by September 13, 2000, the target date in the Sharm el-Sheikh deal.

Arafat, who returned to Italy on Sunday after signing a new peace agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, was asked if he had received a "letter of guarantees" from Washington supporting an independent state next year even if Israel could not agree by then.

"There is a very important declaration from the EU and another very important declaration from the Japanese government and also from President Clinton, from Russia and also from China and from the Non-Aligned Movement countries supporting this line," he told reporters.

A top Palestinian negotiator said on Saturday that under the terms of the new deal with Israel, Palestinians were unable to declare an independent state unilaterally until at least September 2000 -- the target date for the completion of final status negotiations.

"If we fail to reach an agreement, then we have the full right to declare a state after that," negotiator Saeb Erekat told Reuters in Jericho.

Erekat said Arafat had received a "letter of guarantees" from U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright restating U.S. support for the Palestinian people to determine their future "on their own land."

Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, now regional development minister in Barak's government, was also in Cernobbio and briefly met Arafat.

"It is in our interests to have an independent Palestine and to see a democratic state be born in Palestine," Italian news agency ANSA quoted Peres as saying.

"A democratic state does not attack, does not go to war," he added. "This accord, which I very much welcome, lays down the foundations for a lasting peace."

Peres said he told business leaders and politicians in his address to the forum that it was now necessary to ensure economic growth in the Palestinian territory and the development of its infrastructure.

An official Syrian newspaper attacked the latest Palestinian-Israeli agreement. Albright tried in Jerusalem and Damascus on Friday and Saturday to revive Israeli-Syrian talks deadlocked for three years.

Before leaving Italy for Gaza, the 70-year-old Arafat spent more than an hour with Pope John Paul at his summer residence, south of Rome, to explain the details of the agreement with Israel.

The Pope, who plans to visit Holy Land sites in Palestinian territory during millennium celebrations next year, told Arafat he hoped the accord would lead to a guarantee for peace without delays and obstacles.

At mass after his meeting with Arafat, the pope called the agreement a "comforting ray of light" in a troubled world.