|Globalization - Countries
- Israeli-Palestinian ConflictBush Administration
By BARRY SCHWEID, AP Diplomatic Writer Jun 5, 2002
WASHINGTON (AP) - The White House questioned Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat 's relevance to the Middle East peace process Wednesday after the latest suicide bombing in Israel. U.S. diplomats are increasing contacts with Palestinians other than Arafat in hopes of finding new leaders willing to curb terrorism, officials said.
"In the president's eyes, Yasser Arafat has never played a role of someone who can be trusted or who was effective," presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer said.
He said President Bush condemned "in the strongest terms" a car bombing near the town of Megiddo that engulfed a bus in flames during the morning rush hour Wednesday. Sixteen passengers were killed and dozens wounded in the suicide attack on the 35th anniversary of the 1967 Mideast War.
The criticism was confined to the Palestinian leadership. There was no reference to supporters of the Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group that claimed responsible for the deadly assualt in Meggido.
And the White House renewed President Bush's support for a Palestinian state, saying the Palestinian people deserve one.
The Palestinian people deserve to be governed in a manner that "has high regard" for their future, Fleischer said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell condemned the bombing "in the strongest possible terms" and called on Arafat "to move decisively against terror and violence."
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. message to Israel will be familiar: It has a right to defend itself, but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other leaders should keep in mind the consequences of tough retaliation.
In a first response, Israel sent two dozen tanks into the West Bank town of Jenin, the assailant's hometown.
"This attack underscores the fact that these terrorists are the worst enemies of not only the people of Israel who seek peace but also the Palestinian people," Fleischer said. He said the attack also highlights the importance of developing a Palestinian security force that can curb attacks.
Peppered with questions about Arafat's role in the peacemaking process, Fleischer seemed to look beyond the Palestinian leader to other elements in the Palestinian Authority.
"The president is focused on actions and not individuals," Fleischer said. "The Palestinian Authority is comprised of many people."
The senior administration official said the United States will deal with Arafat because he is the chosen Palestinian leader, but diplomats are also talking to a broad range of Palestinians in hopes of securing reforms.
"Some people are coming forward," the official said. "We are not going to try to choose the leader of the Palestinian people but any process of democratization, any process of building civil society, is going to raise new voices in the Palestinian leadership. And we want to encourage that."
The comments track remarks made by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice during Bush's European trip last month. "There is indeed a lot of ferment and a lot of talk about reform in the Palestinian Authority," she said.
The administration is concerned that the Wednesday's car bombing and revelations that that terrorists tried to use cyanide in a March 27 Israeli attack point to increased sophistication of Mideast terrorists. Rogue states such as Syria and Iran could be contributing to the increased technology, the official said.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration is mapping plans for a Middle East peace conference next month in Turkey, a major step in a resurgent U.S. effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. The administration official said Bush may have concrete proposals ready for the conference, but that is not certain.
He does not plan to announce any new initiatives immediately after meeting Saturday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and a separate session Monday with Sharon. The official called both meetings part of a broader consultation process.
Sen. Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after a meeting with Bush on Wednesday that the Mideast crisis threatens his anti-terrorism campaign.
"He realizes that a settlement in the Middle East holds the key and/or is the blocking mechanism to a lot of other things that are very much in the interests of the United States of America beyond our keen interest in survival of Israel," he said.
According to a well-placed U.S. official, the conference would be held among foreign ministers from the Middle East and Europe.
But the official, speaking Tuesday on condition of anonymity, cautioned that arranging an agenda and making other difficult preparations remain as potential hurdles.
The peace conference would be geared to reopening negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians while also addressing the broader Arab-Israeli conflict.
Bush's scheduled meetings this weekend with Mubarak and Sharon could accelerate planning. Mubarak plans to ask Bush to support a deadline for Palestinian statehood.
The senior administration official said Bush will weigh the initiative along with other advice he is receiving from Mideast leaders, but suggested it is premature to be discussing statehood deadlines.
They could clarify the next steps in promoting democratic change within the Palestinian Authority and new security arrangements in Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank and in Gaza, said the senior U.S. official.
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