U.S. President George W. Bush's recent call for Palestinians to find leaders "not compromised by terror" is getting an ambivalent response from many governments, which view it as an effort to remove Yasser Arafat from the Mideast peace process. Some European and other leaders are saying that they continue to view Arafat as the Palestinians' elected president. Others are wondering if new polls would produce anyone more capable than Arafat of making peace.
Prague, 26 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As the leaders of the world's eight most industrialized states, the G-8, prepare to meet later today in Canada, one of the main topics on their agenda will be how to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Central to the discussion is likely to be U.S. President George W. Bush's demand earlier this week that the Palestinians change their leadership as a pre-condition for Washington's supporting the creation of a Palestinian state.
Bush repeated that demand yesterday as he arrived in Kananaskis, Canada, ahead of the G-8 summit. "The Palestinians need new leadership, elected leadership. They need a constitution. They need the international donor community to participate so long as there is transparency and the financial institutions are sound enough to reject corruption," Bush said.
The U.S. president said on Monday that the new Palestinian leaders must be "not compromised by terror." He did not mention Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat by name, but Bush's choice of wording has been widely interpreted as meaning Washington wants Arafat to step aside as part of the reform process.
The American position on Arafat has drawn mixed responses from other world leaders, many of whom have been calling for months on Washington to take a more active role in trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. That crisis has escalated steadily since the peace process broke down almost two years ago and now includes almost daily Palestinian suicide attacks on Israeli targets. The Israeli government has responded by seizing Palestinian self-rule areas, and seven of the eight major Palestinian towns are under a 24-hour curfew.
The mixed reaction to Bush's statement this week has featured widespread international praise for Washington's support for a Palestinian state. Jordan and Egypt, which have peace treaties with Israel and are among America's closet Arab allies, praised Bush for endorsing a Palestinian state and calling on Israel to withdraw from occupied territories. Jordan's official Petra news agency said, "We see this as the beginning of the end of the conflict between Arabs and Israelis."
But there has been much more ambiguous reaction to Bush's call for sidelining Arafat, whom U.S. officials fault for doing too little to stop the suicide bombings. Washington has repeatedly called on Arafat to restructure his security services, which Israel accuses of helping to organize suicide attacks. The U.S. also believes Arafat has failed to crack down on Palestinian Islamic militant groups, such as Hamas, which have publicly claimed responsibility for the bombings.
European leaders have been among those responding with little enthusiasm to Bush's effort to sideline Arafat. Following the U.S. president's speech, many indicated they do not intend to join him in demanding Arafat's removal, and called instead for such choices to be left to the Palestinian people.
European Union foreign-policy chief Javier Solana said in Brussels yesterday that he welcomes Washington's new engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. But he said the EU considers the Palestinians' elected officials to be their legitimate leaders. "For us, talking about the Palestinian Authority, the elected leaders are the elected leaders, and we will continue to deal with them. And it is [up] to the Palestinian people to see who is to be their leader, the leaders, of this country," Solana said.
Other European officials have sounded similar notes.
Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, whose country takes over the rotating EU presidency next month, said, "We will not demand that Arafat or any other leader in the region is removed."
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said that it is "up to the Palestinians themselves to choose their leaders." And German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said "the Palestinian people alone must decide on its legitimate leadership."
Similarly, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, "We've got to have a leadership and institutions with whom a settlement can be negotiated, [and] my own view is clear on what I think the shortcomings are of Chairman Arafat." But he added, "We have to negotiate with whomever is elected by the Palestinians."
Some leaders suggested their reluctance to push for Arafat's marginalization stems from their doubts whether other Palestinian politicians could defeat Arafat in elections and, if so, whether they would be capable of leading the Palestinian side to a peace deal.
Palestinian officials are planning to hold presidential and legislative elections in January, and Arafat is widely expected to win. The chief Palestinian negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, Saeb Erekat, said today in the West Bank town of Jericho that the elections will be in the first weeks of the new year. "President Arafat officially declares today that the election of the president of the Palestinian Authority and the election of the Palestinian Legislative Council will be held in January 2003. The date will be between the 10th and the 20th," Erekat said.
Erekat also told reporters that the Palestinian Authority is determined to reform itself following widespread criticism among Palestinians, and from Western capitals, that it is riddled with corruption and has little public accountability. The charges of corruption and favoritism are considered to be Arafat's chief domestic weakness. "Now let me say what many of you may think: 'Are we saying this or submitting this in response to President Bush's speech?' We are saying this in response to Palestinian needs. We are saying this because we have been working on this reform for months," Erekat said.
Palestinian Authority officials like Erekat hope that if their administration can address concerns over corruption, there will be little reason for voters not to re-elect Arafat as president. Arafat remains by far the Palestinians' most widely known leader, and many political analysts say the current crisis has helped rally public support for him as the Palestinians' principal national symbol.
Analyst Henry Siegman of the Council of Foreign Relations in New York recently said he sees few rivals to Arafat in the forthcoming election. He also said the U.S. won't find it easy "to motivate others to take radical action to change the internal course of the Palestinian Authority unless they get a very clear and definite view of where the Palestinians will end up."
The details of U.S. support for a Palestinian state, as well as the resolution of the toughest questions, such as the future of Jerusalem, have yet to be spelled out. But senior Bush administration officials have been quoted as saying that after full reforms by the Palestinians, the United States could be ready to back the creation of a provisional Palestinian state within 18 months and that full statehood could be three years away.
As the G-8 leaders now look set to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and, likely, the question of Arafat's political future, some international leaders are cautioning that any new Palestinian head might prove more difficult to deal with than his predecessor.
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned this week that "you could find yourself in a situation that the radicals are the ones that get elected, and it would be the result of a democratic process, and we have to accept that." Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Arafat's removal "would only radicalize the Palestinian movement."
One of the most popular Palestinian figures after Arafat is Marwan Barghouti, a charismatic and much younger leader who has risen quickly during the past months of turmoil. Barghouti is currently in an Israeli jail on charges of organizing suicide bombings, a charge he denies.
In a sign that Washington does not rule out that Arafat could emerge from the January poll as strong as ever, one top U.S. official says the administration would respect the election results.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "We will see what [the Palestinians] decide they want through these elections, and the United States will respect whatever they say as a people when these elections are held."
Asked what would happen if Arafat is re-elected, Powell added: "We'll just have to see how that plays out. We will deal with the circumstances as we find them."