U.S., Palestinian officials meet on security force

Aides to Arafat say they can't move toward peace till Israel quits their cities


WASHINGTON - In the highest-level contacts since President Bush made support for Palestinian statehood contingent on Yasser Arafat's removal, three senior Palestinian officials met yesterday with senior officials at the White House and the State Department. They left saying they could make little progress toward peace unless Washington pressed Israel to withdraw from Palestinian areas.

The meetings, with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, were to review Palestinian efforts to rebuild a security force and restructure institutions to be more democratic and accountable, as Bush has demanded.

But the aides to Arafat, the Palestinian leader, suggested that change was not possible as long as Israeli troops continue to occupy the West Bank and Gaza.

"Behind the curtain, we are doing something slowly, gradually," the newly appointed Palestinian interior minister, Abdel Razak Al-Yahya, said at a luncheon at the Brookings Institution.

He described efforts to reorganize the Palestinian security forces, which have been scattered in four months of Israeli occupation. But he said the effort could proceed only so far - as long as Israeli forces make it impossible for Palestinian police to move around or carry weapons.

"I don't know that the United States is going to convince the Israelis or make that pressure," Al-Yahya said.

Negotiating with Arafat's lieutenants when the Bush administration has demanded his ouster poses a diplomatic challenge. The tougher policy toward Arafat is part of the administration's wider anti-terrorism effort, the view being that the world would be safer without leaders such as him and President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, both of whom the administration has denounced for siding with terrorists.

By now, according to the Bush administration's spring blueprint, an international peace conference was supposed to have been held in Istanbul or Ankara, Turkey, or maybe in Rome. A CIA-drafted plan for renewed security cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians was supposed to be operational, perhaps prompting a letup in bombings, occupation and near-daily death.

But in the past six weeks, the administration has moved only incrementally to follow up on Bush's pledge to support creation of a Palestinian state within three years if Palestinians made major internal reforms in governance and security.

"If you're looking for some strong follow-through on the president's words, there's no indication of serious follow-through - yet," said Martin Indyk, a former senior State Department official and ambassador to Israel in the Clinton administration. "On the security front, there appears to have been nothing done."

No other high-level meetings are planned at the moment, and a State Department spokesman cautioned against expecting immediate action.

"I don't think I'm in a position to lay out for you concrete results," said the spokesman, Philip T. Reeker. "This is a process."

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