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White House Warily Plans Signing Ceremony for Pact


WASHINGTON — The Clinton Administration is making plans for a full-dress White House signing ceremony next week for the precedent-shattering Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, but officials conceded Tuesday that lingering disputes over details could delay the event for weeks.

White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said President Clinton has suggested signing the pact next Monday if the Palestine Liberation Organization satisfies Israeli conditions for mutual recognition by then. But "it's not a done deal," Myers conceded.

Israeli officials said that Monday is the last possible date for the ceremony before the onset of the Jewish holiday season, which will keep Israeli leaders at home for most of the rest of this month.

In Jerusalem, a senior Israeli official said negotiations are continuing with the PLO for "clear and unequivocal statements" acknowledging Israel's right to exist. To meet conditions set by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the PLO must also abandon force, including terrorism and what the PLO calls its "armed struggle."

"We have our demands, and we are not weakening them in any way," the Israeli official said. "The importance is that these declarations will make the PLO a very different PLO, a PLO we can have as a partner through this whole process. For that they must be very precisely worded, and they must be adopted at authoritative levels of the PLO."

But Nissim Zvilli, secretary general of Israel's governing Labor Party, expressed optimism that Israeli and PLO negotiators, working through a Norwegian mediator, will agree on the statement in the next day or so and that PLO leader Yasser Arafat will then win the final PLO debates, clearing the way for the signing Monday.

"Things aren't so simple for Arafat--he has his opposition too," Zvilli said. "We have come to understand that in recent days. . . . We are not too far away on wording, but the PLO has to make a decision on what are, for us and for them, fundamental issues."

Meanwhile, Arafat continued to try to drum up Arab support for the agreement, which calls for limited Palestinian self-government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, starting with Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho, but stops far short of the Palestinian goal of an independent state.

Arafat was in Oman on Tuesday, seeking the help of Sultan Kaboos ibn Said, ruler of the sparsely populated Persian Gulf state, in patching up his relationship with Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf nations that ended financial subsidies of the PLO after Arafat endorsed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Oman is the only Gulf state that maintains even a semblance of warm relations with the PLO.

The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council has endorsed the Israel-PLO pact as a "just, lasting and comprehensive settlement." But Arafat needs the financial backing of the Gulf states to help pay the cost of Palestinian government.

Even more crucial to Arafat's plans, however, is a meeting of the PLO Executive Committee, scheduled to begin today in Tunis, Tunisia, at which the committee will be called upon to endorse the agreement hammered out during months of secret negotiations in Oslo. The committee, which contains pockets of opposition to the pact, also must agree to remove from the PLO's charter the provisions calling for the destruction of Israel.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who met Arafat in Cairo before the PLO chairman left for Oman, expressed hope that letters of recognition could be exchanged within 48 hours. But PLO sources said that schedule is probably too optimistic.

In Washington, formal Arab-Israeli peace talks resumed Tuesday after a four-day weekend. Israel is negotiating separately with Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinians.

Syria's chief delegate, Mowaffak Allaf, who last week optimistically predicted an early agreement, sought to lower expectations Tuesday. "Unless we see a sudden change of position by the Israeli delegation, unless we see a more serious and constructive attitude toward these core issues, I do not think there will be any progress," Allaf told reporters.

Itamar Rabinovitch, Israel's chief delegate, said the talks made substantial progress last week, but he said it is doubtful that agreement can be reached before the current round of talks ends Thursday.

Kempster reported from Washington and Parks from Jerusalem.

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