Powell endorses departure of Arafat

Parts of Arab world feel PLO leader should resign, says secretary of state

July 13, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell endorsed proposals yesterday that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat step down and name a replacement until elections are held next year, saying there is a growing sense in parts of the Arab world that such a change is necessary.

"We think it would be an excellent idea," Powell said in an interview with a small group of reporters. "We think it would be very useful to have a prime minister or a minister of transformation, somebody we can work with."

The Bush administration has had no formal contact with Arafat since President Bush said June 24 that efforts to create a Palestinian state would have to wait until the Palestinians find new leadership and institute far-reaching security and economic reforms.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer pressed his European counterparts this week on a plan for an interim Palestinian leader. Powell said the administration had suggested this "on a number of occasions" with its allies in Europe and the Arab world.

"I think there is support for this in some parts of the Arab world," Powell said, declining to name the countries.

"I do sense there is an understanding in a number of countries in the Arab world that in order for us to move forward, it would be helpful to have a model such as that," Powell said.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, Arafat said yesterday that he would not step down but that he has yet to decide whether he'll run for re-election in January. "I have been elected by the people," he said. "I am not a coward. I'm not ready to betray the people who elected me."

Powell, who took questions from The Sun and two other newspapers, also said:

The United States has "evidence" that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is developing weapons of mass destruction. Senior administration officials have shared such information with European leaders in classified briefings. "I think there's hard evidence that he has never abandoned his goal of developing these kinds of weapons," he said.

The Bush administration's stated goal of "regime change" in Iraq "might improve" attitudes toward the United States in the Arab world, where anti-American sentiment runs high. "I don't think you will find any Arab leader that will race to the defense of Saddam Hussein's policies," he said.

The most effective way to deal with growing anti-American feelings among Arabs is to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "What will turn it around is when we have some success between the Israelis and the Palestinians," he said.

Powell's endorsement of an interim Palestinian leader came as he prepares to head to New York on Tuesday for meetings with officials from Russia, the United Nations and the European Union. Fischer's proposal is among the topics that will be discussed there, said Powell.

The secretary said he was uncertain whether the officials gathered in New York would make any formal endorsement.

He noted that an interim leader would have to be independent of Arafat. "That somebody can't just be somebody who wakes up every morning to take instructions from Chairman Arafat," Powell said. "It has to be somebody who has some authority to act in a responsible way and bind that action."

Such leadership could accelerate creation of a Palestinian state, Powell said, if there is "aggressive implementation" of a reform plan for the Palestinian Authority and commitment by the Palestinians to do "everything possible to get the violence and terror under control."

"One thing I'm absolutely sure of ... if the bombs keep coming, there will be no progress," he said. "If the suicide attacks keep coming, there will be no progress."

While there has been no dialogue between top Palestinian and Israeli leaders, Powell said, he was encouraged by recent meetings between Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and several Palestinian Cabinet ministers. "There are contacts taking place, not necessarily at the Arafat level," he said.

Powell also said he has no intention of responding to a letter he received this week from Arafat. It said that the Palestinian Authority had begun restructuring itself as demanded by the United States but that more could not be done until Israel ended its occupation of the West Bank.

"I have no immediate plans to do anything but study it," Powell said. "The issues that are raised in the letter are well-known to us. We've discussed them with the Israelis."

Powell said both sides are "trapped in this puzzle" and must make "little steps forward." He said that the issue of freedom of movement for Palestinians is a "difficult one" but that the Israeli military's reoccupation has stopped the rash of bombings.

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