Bush eases call for Arafat's ouster

Reforms could reduce power of Palestinian leader, president says

July 18, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON-President Bush softened his demand for the ouster of Yasser Arafat yesterday, saying "the issue is much bigger than a person" and suggesting that reforms could be carried out that effectively reduce the Palestinian leader's power.

"The person you mentioned, Mr. Arafat, has failed to deliver. I still feel that way," Bush said at a news conference with Poland's president, Aleksander Kwasniewski. "And I know the Palestinian people will be better served by new leadership."

But Bush quickly added that the "focus of my administration" is to help develop a Palestinian constitution and reform the Palestinian security and financial structures so as to allow a new state to come into being.

Such reforms, the president said, would mean that "one person doesn't get to decide the fate of a group of people who have suffered mightily." They also would shift the responsibility of the security services away from just keeping a ruler in power and ensure that foreign aid helps the Palestinian people, "not a few leaders," he added.

Bush's comments marked a shift in tone from his Middle East policy speech of June 24, when he called on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders "not compromised by terror" and indicated that without such a change, the United States would not recognize a Palestinian state.

One U.S. official suggested that the shift was tactical: With European and Arab leaders opposed to Bush's policy of refusing to deal with Arafat, the administration wants to play down the idea of replacing him while enlisting their cooperation in securing Palestinian reforms.

The Bush administration remains convinced that a true Palestinian democracy cannot emerge while Arafat remains in power, the official said, adding: "We're focusing on what we can achieve."

As reforms take hold, he said, the Palestinian people themselves may start to "believe there is an alternative."

Palestinian analysts have said that Bush's call for Arafat's removal is likely to backfire on the United States by generating increased popular support for the Palestinian leader.

Bush may have been mindful of this when he noted yesterday, "Mr. Arafat would like the whole issue to be about him. That's the way it's been in the past. Except when you analyze his record, he has failed the Palestinian people. He just has."

Bush sidestepped a question of whether he would support giving Arafat a figurehead role.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suggested to American columnists in May that Arafat could became a ceremonial leader, like the queen of England.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, asked Monday on ABC's Nightline news program whether he could accept Arafat's being "kicked upstairs," replied: "It is a formula I would be more than willing to consider."

A top Arafat aide, Nabil Shaath, said yesterday that Arafat might appoint a prime minister to run the Palestinian Authority's day-to-day operations after elections scheduled for early next year. But he left unclear whether the prime minister would wield independent power or be subservient to Arafat.

Bush's comments yesterday came amid stepped-up Middle East diplomacy against a backdrop of renewed violence in the region.

Two Palestinian suicide bombers killed three people yesterday at a bus station in Tel Aviv, a day after Palestinian gunmen ambushed a bus in the West Bank and killed seven Israelis.

Powell said Tuesday that CIA Director George J. Tenet is close to completing a plan to restructure the Palestinian security services and train new officers. The Bush administration plans to designate a U.S. official to act as a point man in making sure the new Palestinian security services act to prevent terrorist attacks against Israelis.

Meanwhile, administration officials say they are gaining cooperation from Europe, Russia and international donors in reforming the Palestinian Authority, an effort U.S. officials say is winning grass-roots support among Palestinians.

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