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U.S., Allies Disagree on How to Treat Arafat

Talks: In meetings this week, Washington will stress the Palestinian's limitations as a leader.


WASHINGTON — The showdown between George W. Bush and Yasser Arafat over the future of the Palestinian Authority faces its first test this week in talks involving the United States and the Arab, European and U.N. players in the Middle East peace process.

So far, it's shaping up as the United States against everyone else at the table.

Most U.S. allies stand defiantly behind Arafat, even while conceding the need for reforms to open up the Palestinian political system, clean up finances and streamline security forces.

In talks today in New York and Thursday in Washington, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will have a "very hard sell" generating support for the risky new U.S. goal of replacing the Palestinian Authority president, conceded a Bush administration official who requested anonymity.

"No one wants to attend dinner with Powell where the main course served up is Arafat's head," the official said.

The Arab world, represented by the Egyptian, Jordanian and Saudi foreign ministers, plans to counter with its own two-year proposal to establish a Palestinian state, according to Arab diplomats.

And in what has become a common refrain among Europeans, the Russian and French foreign ministers jointly endorsed Arafat after talks in Moscow last week. "He was elected," said French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. "The Palestinian people should make the decision" about who represents them.

To get around the impasse, U.S. strategy now centers on persuading allies to recognize Arafat's limitations, while temporarily ignoring the specifics of his fate to focus on broader reforms.

To the surprise of many both inside and outside the region--including officials involved in crafting President Bush's controversial June 24 speech, in which he called for new leadership in the Palestinian Authority--some pieces have begun to fall into place.

"There are a few signs that we're beginning to see what we want to see," said a senior State Department official who requested anonymity.

Palestinian Reforms

Within the Palestinian Authority, a new 100-day plan addresses some of the reforms pushed by the United States: A new finance minister is pledging to deal with corruption. And Palestinians outside the government are beginning to challenge the leadership and its political practices.

"Everybody is talking about reform and change," said Ziad abu Amr, a political scientist and member of the Palestinian Legislative Council from the Gaza Strip.

In Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has responded to pressure from both the Bush administration and his own defense establishment with steps to ease the impact of Israel's reoccupation of much of the West Bank.

The government established a committee to facilitate the day-to-day existence for a population now largely confined to their homes. Working under Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the committee is authorized to discuss economic and humanitarian issues with Palestinians. In addition, the army reportedly soon intends to pull out of some cities and reduce the number of troops in others.

"To be blunt, instead of being in a coma because of the Bush Middle East speech, and saying that it put all the responsibility on the Palestinians, Israel has decided that we should initiate,'' said Noam Katz, a deputy spokesman for the Foreign Ministry.

The Bush strategy is based heavily on forcing each side to take steps in its own interest. And at least in the opening weeks, that is what has begun to happen, if tentatively.

Within Israel, the military's concern about radicalizing wide swaths of the Palestinian population was the motive for easing some restrictions.

The new chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, said last week that Israel must not turn Palestinian civilians into enemies and should ensure that they can bring bread home to their families.

Yaalon also opposed deporting Arafat, arguing that it would only give the Palestinian leader a new lease on power. Yaalon's predecessor had urged Sharon to expel Arafat.

And Arafat, after long resisting calls for change, has shaken up his Cabinet, fired two security chiefs and unveiled a plan to restructure key ministries.

In a move that surprised U.S. officials, he even wrote Powell a long letter last week outlining his program and asking for U.S. help with additional steps.

Powell said Friday that his staff was reviewing the letter, although he said he has no plans to personally reply.

Yet U.S. allies, including officials Powell will meet this week, still seriously question whether the Bush administration can create enough momentum to change the realities on the ground--or overcome hostilities so that the peace process has another shot.

So far, steps by both sides are of limited consequence.

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