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Bush Blames Arafat for Deadlock

The president, meeting with Jordan's king, says Palestinian leaders must defeat militant groups.

September 19, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Calling Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat a failed leader responsible for the stalled Middle East peace process, President Bush warned Palestinians on Thursday that they must embrace a leadership completely committed to fighting terrorism -- or peace efforts would not move forward.

Bush also said he did not expect a resolution on postwar Iraq to be finalized during the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly next week, indicating that the process of winning broader international support and funding is beginning to drag out.

Scrambling to adjust his schedule because of Hurricane Isabel, Bush held talks at Camp David with Jordan's King Abdullah II a day earlier than planned, discussing both Iraq and the deadlocked Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

The president, at a joint news conference, charged that Arafat deliberately undermined former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, forcing his recent resignation after only four months in power. The fate of the U.S.-backed peace plan now depends on whether the new leadership condemns and thoroughly defeats the militant groups responsible for the suicide bombings and other attacks against Israel during the past three years, Bush said.

"Hopefully, at some point in time, a leadership of the Palestinian Authority will emerge which will then commit itself 100% to fighting off terror. And then we'll be able to consolidate the power necessary to fight off terror," Bush said.

"When that happens, the world will come together to provide the conditions for hope. The world will come together to help an economy grow so that the Palestinian people can have a hopeful future."

Bush said Israeli and Arab leaders also had responsibilities in getting the peace plan back on track, but he clearly put most of the blame on Arafat and the Palestinians. Although the president said he remained committed to the plan, he cautioned that the vision of an independent Palestinian state he first outlined in June 2002 was jeopardized as the violence continued.

"First things first -- defeat those who want to stop this from happening," he said.

The president's talks with Abdullah come at a crucial time in U.S. efforts on both the Middle East peace process and Iraq -- and are a stark contrast to the leaders' last meeting in June, when prospects on those key foreign policy issues appeared much brighter.

Bush formally launched the peace effort at hopeful talks with Arab leaders in Egypt and then with the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers in Aqaba, Jordan, with Abdullah as host. The administration believed the timing was right because the recent toppling of Iraq's Saddam Hussein had changed political dynamics in the region and because the Palestinians, in response to U.S. prodding, had chosen a new prime minister.

But the strategic initiatives appear to pose serious challenges for both the United States and Jordan, a country that shares borders with Israel and Iraq.

After a brief respite in which Israel and the Palestinians took tentative steps to renew peace efforts, the process deteriorated as Abbas was unable to budge control of the myriad Palestinian security forces from Arafat's grip. The situation on the ground began to fall apart with renewed suicide bombings by Palestinian extremists and efforts by Israel to kill leaders of the militant group Hamas.

Abbas resigned Sept. 6. In his place, Arafat selected Ahmed Korei, the speaker of the Palestinian parliament, a turn of events that has so far not eased the crisis.

On Iraq, Washington is finding its appeal for additional foreign troops and aid for reconstruction facing serious hurdles. France has demanded that hand-over of power to Iraqis begin almost immediately, while only two countries -- Turkey and Bangladesh -- have shown interest in providing troops. Few countries have signaled interest in providing significant financial aid.

Bush said Thursday that the United States would continue to press at the United Nations and among European allies for a resolution to widen international involvement.

"One of the things I must do and will continue to do is make the case that a peaceful and secure Iraq is not only in the interests of the neighborhood ... but it's in Europe's interest as well," he told reporters gathered in a helicopter hangar at Camp David because of the hurricane.

"Freedom in Iraq will change the nature of the neighborhood in a positive way," Bush said.

U.S. and Jordanian officials also talked about Iraq's future government. Bush said the United States would insist on an "orderly transfer" of sovereignty after the writing of a constitution, a process expected to take months.

Jordanian officials said Bush assured the king that Washington would reject any arrangement that might lead to the breakup of Iraq along ethnic or religious lines. During Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's weekend trip to Iraq, Kurdish leaders there called for the U.S. to back a federal constitution that protected interests of the non-Arab minority.

Powell told the Kurds that the U.S. supported a broad federal structure but not one based on ethnicity or religion, according to American and Jordanian officials. Jordan, the wider Arab world and Turkey are particularly concerned about any step that might lead to a breakup of Iraq, a strategic Arab country.

The king praised Bush for "strong, genuine dedication" in trying to make the Middle East a better place.

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