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Middle East: Senators Urge Greater U.S. Involvement In Mideast Peace Process

A senior U.S. diplomat told Congress on 20 July that he doubts the Palestinians will achieve statehood unless Yasser Arafat is replaced as their president. However, some members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said they believe Arafat can be a positive force, but only if the administration of President George W. Bush works hard to persuade him to change his tactics.

Washington, 21 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Assistant U.S. Secretary of State David Satterfield testified that the Bush administration is working tirelessly to help bring about a Palestinian state. But he said not enough is being done by the principal parties -- the government of Israel and, in particular, Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

Specifically, Satterfield testified, Arafat is doing far too little to coordinate security in an effort to stop the suicide bombings by Palestinians against Israelis. But he said the United States is continuing to press Arafat as Israel prepares to withdraw about 7,500 settlers from Gaza, along with the Israeli troops that protect them.

This comes in the midst of a confrontation between Arafat and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, who is demanding that he and his cabinet be granted greater authority, particularly over security services.

During the 20 July hearing in Washington, the vice chairman of the committee, Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, said there probably would be no dispute now between Arafat and Qureia if the United States was more engaged in the Middle East peace process.

Another panel member, Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd, said that from the start, Bush's Middle East policy has been characterized by disengagement, which has contributed to the violence by both sides in Gaza and the West Bank.

"In four years here, this thing's getting worse, not better," Dodd said. "There does only seem to be occasional interest in the subject matter, not the kind of intense, laserlike fashion that you need to have if you're going to play a constructive role here."

Now, Dodd said, the United States is virtually isolated on the Middle East issue, even though it is still a member of the so-called "Quartet," along with Russia, the United Nations, and the European Union, in an effort to bring peace to the region:

Satterfield sharply disagreed. "It's quite the opposite," he said. "We have broad international consensus behind us. The Quartet represents in its meetings, in its own engagement on the ground, and expression of that international consensus behind our efforts."

Biden told Satterfield that being a member of the Quartet does not mean that it works in concert with its three partners, especially in public. He said he understands that other Quartet members have privately criticized Arafat for his behavior.

Biden said it is time for the Bush administration to persuade its Quartet colleagues to make their criticisms public in hopes of bringing pressure on Arafat to adhere to the current peace plan, known as the "road map."

"We have been at odds with the Quartet, not on the broad road map, but on the degree to which we should each be engaged in promoting that road map, i.e., putting pressure on Arafat to do certain things, rather than continuing to support Arafat -- publicly," Biden said.

Another witness before the committee agreed. He is Dennis Ross, who served as a Middle East negotiator for the administrations of presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.

Ross said the United States now has virtually no credibility among Palestinians. But the other Quartet members -- particularly the European Union -- are seen as friends of the Palestinian people, and therefore they could bring popular pressure to bear on Arafat.

"[Arafat] pays attention to the Palestinian street," Ross said "You have a lot of turmoil among the Palestinians right now, as we're seeing. If he believes that the Palestinian public says, 'Wait a second, [Arafat's] blocking us, and our friends are saying he's blocking us,' guess what? His behavior will change."

Ross told the committee that Egypt is prepared to ensure that the Palestinians do not simply use that as an opportunity to rearm for subsequent hostilities. Likewise, he said, Washington should be prepared to make sure that Israel refrains from further targeted killings of Palestinian militants.

Meanwhile, Israel is vowing to continue constructing a security barrier in the West Bank, despite a UN General Assembly resolution demanding its destruction.