Yasser Arafat refused Sunday to back away from plans for declaring independence next year for Palestinians living on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority, has previously said he would declare statehood next year, regardless of whether a final peace agreement with Israel has been negotiated."The international community and all peace-loving people must exert every possible effort to ensure the implementation of the agreement before May 4, 1999," he reiterated in a 30-minute speech.
"This is the date," Arafat declared. "It just cannot come and go like any other day. On that day, we hope that our basic choice of reaching an agreement is realized."
The event was organized by the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation, a private, nonpartisan group.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking the same day to hundreds of members of the Jewish Community Relations Council at Manhattan'sHunter College, did not comment on Arafat's statements.
He said only that Israel was dedicated to its national security.
"The only peace that will endure is a peace that can be defended," Net-anyahu said.
Outside the college on the city's Upper East Side, several hundred protesters from various Jewish organizations demonstrated against the peace process. Some waved signs reading: "0 percent. Not one inch."
Arafat is scheduled to address the United Nations on Monday. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said she hoped he would not use the occasion to make a unilateral declaration of his intention to set up a Palestinian state.
After Arafat's speech Sunday, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Dori Gold, said the Palestinian leader was making a mistake by sticking to the May 4 deadline. "A declaration of statehood on May 4, 1999, will collapse the process," Gold said.
Arafat also used his platform Sunday to accuse Netanyahu of undermining the peace process, including the failure to withdraw Israeli troops from the West Bank by March under the Hebron Accord.
"Since the current Israeli government assumed office, hopes for peace began to fade out, replaced by despair and violence," he said. "The political platform of Mr. Netanyahu's government is reflected in its intention to set the clock backward, to slow the pace of peace and lower Palestinian expectations."
Gold said Arafat "missed an opportunity to reach out and create a tone of mutual reconciliation. Unfortunately he used the opportunity to hammer the government of Israel."