U.S. allies to continue dealing with Arafat

United Nations, Russia, EU split with U.S., press for progress in Mideast

July 17, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Breaking with the United States, leaders of Europe, Russia and the United Nations said yesterday that they would continue to deal with Yasser Arafat as the legitimate Palestinian leader and refused to endorse President Bush's demand that he be replaced.

After meeting with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in New York, U.N. and European leaders also prodded the United States to inject new momentum toward a Middle East peace accord, saying improved security for Israelis won't last without progress in negotiations.

"Even if the security track gains some traction, unless we show some progress on the [political and humanitarian] tracks, that will not work," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said.

The comments underscored profound disagreements that persist between the United States and some of its closest allies since Bush spelled out a new Middle East policy June 24.

In that speech, Bush told the Palestinian people that the United States would not support an independent Palestinian state until they replaced Arafat and elected new leadership not tainted by terrorism or corruption. He also insisted on reforms in the Palestinian Authority's security, financial and judicial apparatus.

Once those changes are made, Bush said, the United States will be ready to recognize a Palestinian state provisionally, and he held out hope for a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement within three years. But Bush did not suggest the outlines of any final agreement or lay out plans for how peace talks should resume.

Bush's speech was widely viewed as tilted sharply toward Israel, and it drew negative reactions in the Arab world. Although Arafat is despised by many leaders in the region and Palestinians themselves have pushed for reforms, Bush's demand for Arafat's ouster was seen as an affront to Arab dignity.

Russia and Europe have closer ties to the Palestinians than does the United States.

Alluding to the absence of a negotiating program, Annan said yesterday: "What we have to do is work out how to get there. What is the operational pathway that gets us to that goal in three years' time?"

He and the other leaders rejected the administration's tactic of avoiding any dealings with Arafat, whom no U.S. official has met since the president's speech. And none echoed Bush's call to replace him.

"He is the legitimately elected leader of Palestine, and while he is in this capacity, we'll continue to maintain our relations with him," Annan said, in comments echoed by Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov of Russia.

"Whoever is leader is the person that the European Union will be talking to," said Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.

Yesterday's meeting marked an effort to energize Middle East diplomacy, which has stalled since Bush's speech. It brought together the so-called quartet of foreign ministers from the United States, Europe and Russia, in addition to Annan, all of whom have agreed to work to try to halt Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.

The leaders also met last night with the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan, who will meet with Bush at the White House tomorrow. The Saudi foreign minister will also be there.

But like many previous diplomatic efforts, this one was overshadowed by violence after Palestinian militants, disguised as Israeli soldiers, ambushed an armored bus in the West Bank and killed seven Israeli civilians with sprays of gunfire. The members of the quartet joined Bush in condemning the attack.

Although Powell stressed that improved security for Israelis was most urgent, others said renewed negotiations and humanitarian aid to Palestinians had to proceed at the same time.

"Everything, really ... begins with creating a better sense of security," Powell said. "And so that's the one we'll be moving more aggressively on in the days and the coming weeks."

The administration, he said, is ready to introduce a plan to restructure the Palestinians' security forces, parts of which have joined in anti-Israeli violence.

Moeller countered: "We must keep the security and the reform and the social progress approximately side by side; otherwise, it will turn wrong once more and once more and once more again."

In a joint statement, members of the quartet nudged the United States to step up its demands to Israel.

They called on Israel "to take concrete steps to support the emergence of a viable Palestinian state," including measures to ease closures in Palestinian areas, where hundreds of thousands of people are living under Israeli-imposed curfews, and a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

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