U.S. pressure in Mideast has a few results

Allies resist replacing Arafat, who is making some changes in regime

July 16, 2002|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The showdown between George W. Bush and Yasser Arafat over the future of the Palestinian Authority faces its first test this week in talks involving the United States and the Arab, European and United Nations players in the Middle East peace process.

Most U.S. allies still defiantly stand behind Arafat, even while conceding the need for reforms to open up the Palestinian political system, clean up the financial system and streamline the security forces.

In talks today in New York and Thursday in Washington, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will have a "very hard sell" generating support for the risky new U.S. goal of replacing the Palestinian leader, conceded an administration official who requested anonymity.

The Arab world, represented by the Egyptian, Jordanian and Saudi foreign ministers, plans to counter with a two-year plan to establish a Palestinian state, according to Arab diplomats.

And in what has become a common refrain among Europeans, the Russian and French foreign ministers jointly endorsed Arafat after talks in Moscow last week.

"He was elected," said French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. "The Palestinian people should make the decision" about who represents them.

U.S. strategy now centers on persuading allies to recognize Arafat's limitations, temporarily ignoring the specifics of his fate to focus on broader reforms.

To the surprise of many - including officials involved in crafting Bush's June 24 speech, in which he called for new leadership in the Palestinian Authority - some pieces have begun to fall into place.

Within the Palestinian Authority, a new 100-day plan addresses some of the reforms pushed by the United States. A new finance minister is pledging to deal with corruption. And Palestinians outside the government are beginning to challenge the leadership and its political practices.

In Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has responded to pressure from both the Bush administration and his own defense establishment with steps to ease the impact of Israel's reoccupation of much of the West Bank.

Arafat, after long resisting calls for change, has shaken up his Cabinet, fired two security chiefs and unveiled a plan to restructure key ministries.

In a move that surprised U.S. officials, he wrote Powell a long letter last week outlining his program and asking for U.S. help with additional steps.

Yet U.S. allies still seriously question whether the Bush administration can create enough momentum to change the realities or overcome hostilities so the peace process has another shot.

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