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Arafat Lashes out at Likud; Calls for Palestinians to Strike

By Barton Gellman
The Washington Post

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Wednesday abandoned a three-month effort to woo Israeli public opinion, lashing out at what he called a government of idiots and accusing Israel's new Likud Party leadership of "declaring a state of war against the Palestinian people."

Eyes flashing in rage as he addressed the elected Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah, in the West Bank, Arafat declared a one-day general strike for the first time since Palestinians called off their uprising against Israel's occupation and reached mutual recognition with Israel in 1993.

He invited "all Muslims" to take part in a mass prayer rally in Jerusalem's Aqsa Mosque on Friday, in implicit defiance of Israel's military closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Those calls for direct action, combined with a speech that at times included personal invective against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu '75, crossed a new line in the recent decline of the three-year effort to reach a negotiated accommodation between Israelis and Palestinians.

Arafat did not speak of violence or announce a boycott of future talks. But he rejected an American appeal to send his deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, to meet Netanyahu's envoy, Dore Gold, on Thursday and the council declared a rupture in contacts with the Israeli government.

Several hours after Arafat's remarks, unknown gunmen opened fire on an Israeli bus traveling to the settlement of Kiryat Arba in the West Bank. The Israeli army said two people were lightly wounded by flying glass.

Two immediate grievances appear to have provoked Arafat's outburst, which departed from his ordinary care to avoid the rhetoric of war.

One was Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai's announcement this week that he will permit construction of 1,806 new apartments, 900 of them immediately, in a new "neighborhood" of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Kiryat Sefer - the first of many such plans in the works.

Perhaps the greater flash point was the government's demolition of an East Jerusalem community center for disabled Arabs on Tuesday. Israel said the building had been erected without a permit, and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert declared Wednesday that Arab residents "built it in sheer provocation, knowing it would be demolished."

That move followed several other uses of police power by the Likud government to cement its hold on the Arab neighborhoods of the disputed city. Netanyahu also declared this month that he saw no chance of reaching a negotiated agreement on Jerusalem, suggesting Israel will impose its claim on the city that is at the emotional center of both Jewish and Palestinian nationalism.

"Israel has started the war on Jerusalem," Arafat said Wednesday, jabbing a finger in the air, in his speech, which was given in Arabic. "They are idiots to have started the Jerusalem battle. There will be no Palestinian state without Jerusalem. Netanyahu should know he is stupid to have started this battle."

Netanyahu told reporters on a tour of central Israel that he "would avoid inflammatory rhetoric of this kind" and said it would be "a very grave mistake to have an escalation of both rhetoric or of deeds, especially an escalation toward violence."

His director of communications and policy planning, David Bar Illan, argued in an interview that the expanded settlement work and demolition had nothing to do with Arafat's "pique." Referring to Palestinian complaints against abuses by Arafat's security forces, he said the only cause of Arafat's distress is "his own actions as a tyrant and a corrupt leader."

Since defeating Shimon Peres for the premiership in elections May 29, Netanyahu has promised foreign leaders that he would honor the accords reached with the Palestinians by Peres and his slain predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin. At the same time he has failed to withdraw Israeli troops from the bulk of the West Bank city of Hebron, the most significant unfulfilled Israeli obligation, and he has refused to permit his subordinates to discuss the matter with their Palestinian counterparts.

Netanyahu has frozen all negotiations with the elected Palestinian Authority, including talks on a final accord begun in May, as his government has fought intramural battles over who would manage the talks and what concessions, if any, it would offer.