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Despite U.S. call to remove Arafat, January poll will be held to reelect him

Nabil Shaath, a top aide to Yasser Arafat, is minister of planning of the Palestinian Authority. Last week he met U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in the White House to present the Palestinian ''vision'' for peace, making him the highest-ranking member of the Palestinian Authority to visit the White House since President Bush came to office. Shaath spoke with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels from Gaza on June 25.

NATHAN GARDELS: President Bush has presented his long-awaited plan for peace in the Middle East. What do you think of it?

Coming after long delay, the ''Bush plan'' was presented on Monday (June 24). At long last the president of the United States has committed himself to a course of action for peace in the Middle East that includes an independent Palestinian state. This personal and national commitment is something he has long eluded. This, in itself, is a highly positive factor.

Beyond this, there are many other positive factors in his plan, above all the call for an end to the Israeli occupation of territories taken in 1967, thus refuting the Israeli claim that these are ''disputed,'' not occupied, lands. Further, Bush has called for immediate Israeli withdrawal to the borders of Sept. 28, 2000, before the Israeli incursions after the beginning of the intifada. Again, the American president committed himself to recognition of a Palestinian state even before the borders are finalized. Importantly, at our insistence, he has abandoned the term ''provisional'' that implied recognition of a state based on present borders and accepts that any such state must be declared with reference to the 1967 borders and adjusted by negotiation from that point.

Also very positive in Bush's plan is the stated intention to conclude all these actions within three years. He also called on Israel to give back the $1 billion it collected from us in taxes over the past two years but then froze in its treasury. And the American president expressed his concern for the suffering of Palestinians under siege.

The most negative factor of the Bush speech, of course, is the overwhelming attack on the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat. These are the wrong lyrics to the right music.

I suppose this was meant to appease the Israelis and show some balance so (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon swallows more easily the things Bush wants him to do that he doesn't want to do -- such as shutting down the settlements.

This attack on Arafat is blatantly unfair and has already created two wrong impressions. First, the Israelis now think they have a green light to do whatever they want with President Arafat, to kill him or expel him.

Second, the impression in the Arab world of Bush's speech is overwhelmingly negative because of what they see as this arrogant call by the world's superpower, at the behest of the Israelis, to choose the leader of the Palestinian people. What other people in the world would accept such a blatant usurpation of their voices?

Unfortunately, since Bush's call to remove Arafat dominated the first two-thirds of his speech, it buried the positive dimensions and created a negative psychology.

That negative atmosphere makes it very difficult to consider this speech the beginning of a real peace process unfolding on the ground where the grass-roots people feel it.

Everything depends on where it goes from here. While the three-year time frame is encouraging, there is no immediate time frame to get the process rolling. And that could frustrate hopes even further.

GARDELS: So, what next?

SHAATH: It is very important that Bush sends (U.S. Secretary of State) Colin Powell to the region as soon as possible. Secretary Powell should meet quickly with America's quartet counterparts -- Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- and the three major Arab states -- Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan -- to try to turn the speech into a concrete action plan. Only when changes on the ground begin to occur can this speech be redeemed. Otherwise, it might go the way of other previous statements in the past, that is, nowhere. The proof of the pudding is the eating of it on the ground.

When you met (U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza) Rice in the White House just last week, did you get the impression that the Bush administration really means Arafat must go completely, or are they willing to accept him in a ''presidential'' role as representative of the Palestinian nation if there is a prime minister elected to run the Palestinian state? After all, they were willing to deal with you and you are as close as one gets to Arafat.

SHAATH: This had been mentioned, yes, by some American officials when I was in Washington. To me, it is not clear whether the attack on Arafat is music for Israeli ears or if it involves an action plan.

All they have by way of an action plan is a call for immediate elections. That is fine with us. If they want Arafat to be re-legitimated again by a democratic process, so be it. Arafat has called for elections by January.

If the Palestinians elect Arafat again, will the United States deal with him as their leader? In Washington you get two answers: yes from Secretary of State Colin Powell; no from ''Condi'' Rice, the National Security Advisor.

Our intention is to go ahead with presidential elections in January. If, as is likely, Arafat will win, then the United States will finally have to decide if pleasing Sharon is more important than democracy.

In the meantime, we will pursue all the reforms being called for because these are overdue and fully in the interests of the Palestinian people.

(c) 2002, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 6/25/02)