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Arafat Issue Aside, 'Quartet' Finds Unity

Mideast: Officials from Europe and key Arab states shun U.S. calls to oust Palestinian leader but otherwise back Bush's reform initiative.

July 17, 2002|WILLIAM ORME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — After meetings with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell here Tuesday, top diplomats from Europe, Russia and key Arab states pointedly distanced themselves from U.S. efforts to dislodge Yasser Arafat from power, saying Palestinians should choose their own leaders without foreign interference.

Yet the high-level diplomatic discussions of President Bush's new Middle East initiative produced broad support for U.S. insistence on Palestinian political and economic reform as a prerequisite for peace--provided that Israel takes "reciprocal steps" toward an end to its military occupation of areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The group of intermediaries, which has been dubbed "the quartet"--the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia--called on Palestinians "to create a governing framework of working democracy, in preparation for statehood," including "free, open and democratic elections."

Powell said the U.S. was working with Arab and European officials on undisclosed new security steps by the Palestinians, though he denied reports that CIA Director George J. Tenet would travel to the region this month to implement the plans.

At the same time, the group called on Israel "to take concrete steps to support the emergence of a viable Palestinian state," such as removing the military roadblocks outside most Palestinian towns and pulling troops back to where they were before the outbreak of violence in the region in September 2000.

"There can be no military solution to this conflict," said U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, speaking on behalf of the group. "The Israeli occupation that began in 1967 must end, and Israel must have secure, recognized borders." He referred in part to areas seized by Israel during the 1967 Middle East War.

Israel should also stop "all new settlement activity," the group said, and release what U.S. officials said is more than $600 million in tax money meant for the Palestinians.

Last year Israel stopped turning over sales taxes and customs duties it collected for the Palestinian Authority under the terms of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, contending that the funds indirectly subsidized Palestinian terrorism.

The foreign ministers of Jordan and Egypt, who met separately with Powell and then later with representatives of the entire quartet for dinner at Annan's Manhattan townhouse, welcomed what they saw as a renewed U.S. commitment to achieving a resolution in the region.

They were especially encouraged, they said, by Bush's stated goal of achieving a settlement with an independent Palestinian state within three years.

As with so many of the recent diplomatic initiatives in the region, Tuesday's high-level discussions were overshadowed by renewed Mideast violence, with the diplomats here decrying an ambush by Palestinian militants in the West Bank that claimed the lives of seven Israelis and wounded at least 17 others.

"Terrorists must not be allowed to kill the hope of an entire region, and a united international community, for genuine peace and security for both Palestinians and Israelis," the quartet said in a statement.

Though Powell stressed in his private meetings here the importance of renewing ground-level security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians, some European diplomats suggested that this collaboration would be difficult without Arafat's direct involvement and support.

Arafat "is the legitimately elected leader of Palestine, and while he is in this capacity, we will continue to maintain our relations with him," Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov said.

But U.S. officials suggested that they could deal directly with what they called "empowered ministers" in Arafat's recently reorganized Cabinet.

Going into Tuesday's meetings, Powell and his colleagues had already seemingly agreed to disagree on the issue of Arafat's leadership. They avoided the topic almost entirely in the meetings here, according to diplomats who attended the sessions, and concentrated instead on areas of broad accord, including the urgent need to relieve what one senior U.S. diplomat called the Palestinians' "truly horrific" living conditions.

Annan, in what was seen as an effort to show that Israel had been consulted about the discussions, told reporters that he had spoken with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by telephone shortly before Tuesday's meetings.

"Prime Minister Sharon told me that he wanted to see a worldwide humanitarian operation to alleviate the plight of the Palestinian people," Annan said. "Of course, we shall have to find out more details about that."

Last week, officials and economic assistance experts representing the quartet and Norway and Japan--two other major donors of aid to the Palestinians--met in London to coordinate aid disbursement and Palestinian reform plans.

But European officials rebuffed U.S. suggestions that all aid to the Palestinians be disbursed through nongovernmental channels, as has been the case with American assistance.

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