Powell set for pressure on Arafat

Persuading other nations to cut off ties is part of Mideast trip's agenda

April 26, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration, seeking to bolster an emerging team of Palestinian leaders, is pressing Arab and European nations to cut back diplomatic contacts with Yasser Arafat and divert the financing of Palestinian activities away from his control, administration officials said yesterday.

The campaign for a global drive to undercut Arafat is one of several items on Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's agenda for his trip to the Middle East next month, the first Bush administration attempt in a year to become directly involved in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Powell's objective is also to persuade Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to get the newly designated Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, to push Arafat aside and disarm Hamas and other militant groups to help the process that could lead to the creation of a Palestinian state.

The United States has told Israel that it must ease the crackdown on Palestinian areas once Abbas takes office, which could be next week.

With combat in Iraq winding down and with U.S. troops in control of a country that used to be one of Israel's worst enemies, Powell's trip is viewed inside the Bush administration as one of his most important as secretary of state. There will even be some "shuttle diplomacy" between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem and Abbas in Ramallah, officials said.

Administration officials said that not only was Powell expected to snub Arafat, with whom the United States has had no contact for nearly a year, but that an effort was under way to persuade other nations to cut off contact as well.

A test of this policy may come tomorrow, with the visit of the Japanese foreign minister, Yoriko Kawaguchi, to Israel. Administration officials said yesterday that Kawaguchi and others were being told that if they meet with Arafat, they may not be able to meet with Sharon.

An administration official said yesterday that the United States had told officials from the European Union, the United Nations and Russia that a peace plan they helped draft toward a Palestinian state would not be formally presented to Arafat.

Instead, the officials said the plan should be presented only to Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen. President Bush had said the plan would not be published or promulgated until Abbas had taken the job of prime minister.

"We're telling people that this is the moment to build up Abu Mazen, and it undermines that objective if you treat Arafat like he's still in charge," a U.S. official said. "That cannot happen and must not happen."

Part of the leverage for the new pressure on Arafat, administration officials said, was the $1 billion a year that donor nations supply to the Palestinian Authority, about a quarter of which comes from the European Union and more than a third from the Arab League.

In the past six months, American and European officials have said they are pleased with what they call a new transparency in the Palestinians' financial accounts, which they maintain were riddled until recently with corruption and secrecy.

Under the new finance minister, Salam Fayyad, a former International Monetary Fund official, Palestinian books are said to be more open. But U.S. officials said there was still some work that could be done to make sure that funds do not get transferred to parts of the government controlled by Arafat.

In addition, diplomats involved with the Palestinians said they were pressing Fayyad to get control of not only the $1 billion in donations, but also of the hundreds of millions in revenues generated by various Palestinian government monopolies that sell consumer goods from flour to cigarettes to cement.

These funds are often described as a source of Palestinian corruption and of money that makes its way to militant groups that carry out attacks on Israel.

Trips to the Middle East by American secretaries of state have been frequent, but Powell has not made one for a year, under rising criticism from Arabs and Europeans that the administration was more interested in making war on Iraq than in helping negotiate peace between Israel and its neighbors.

Administration hard-liners were angry over Powell's decision during his last trip to meet with Arafat at the very moment when many were blaming Arafat for a series of attacks on Israelis and when his headquarters in Ramallah was under siege from Israeli forces.

In the year since, the administration has spent perhaps more time negotiating the plan than it has talking with the Israelis, and certainly with the Palestinians.

The turnaround made possible by Abbas' ascendance ushers in what some administration officials say is a delicate new phase in which Israel and the United States will try to orchestrate a series of concessions to the Palestinians to bolster Abbas' standing.

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