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Nabil Shaath is the Palestinian foreign minister. As his car inched its way to Ramallah, where Shaath would meet Yasser Arafat on Sept. 18, he spoke with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels. At times, the conversation was drowned out by the shouting throng of Palestinians who turn out each day to rally in support of Arafat and against the Israeli expulsion order.

NATHAN GARDELS: What signal did the U.S. veto of the U.N. resolution calling for protection of Yasser Arafat send to the Palestinians?

NABIL SHAATH: Clearly, it was a negative signal. It generated a lot of quizzical anger. The United States has said that its veto was not in any way supposed to "give a green light" to the Israelis to assassinate or deport Arafat. But how else can you interpret it?

GARDELS: The U.S. argument, of course, is that the resolution, sponsored by Syria, was not balanced because it didn't condemn terrorist acts by Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well.

SHAATH: Yes, I understand that. But we have condemned Hamas and Islamic Jihad so many times in so many ways in so many statements and resolutions as terrorists that hinder peace. How rare in comparison are the condemnations of Israeli terrorism against the Palestinians -- the extra-judicial assassinations, leveling of houses and killing of innocent bystanders. The whole occupation. Here, with this resolution, was an opportunity for the United States to show evenhandedness at this critical stage. And it didn't do it.

GARDELS: Has the expulsion order by the Israeli security cabinet against Arafat backfired, making him stronger politically?

SHAATH: Witness the difficulty here in Ramallah I'm having at this moment getting to Arafat's office. The car only inches along through the crowd of thousands surrounding Arafat's headquarters, demonstrating in support! Thousands continue to flock here to try to protect him. This has gone on now for more than a week since the expulsion order was announced.

Also, we have received messages of support from most governments across the world, reaffirming Arafat's role.

As usual, the Israelis overshot and went overboard in their threats. If their aim was to isolate Arafat, it was a stupid decision because it quite evidently has done the opposite.

GARDELS: Do you fear an attack at any moment on Arafat's headquarters in an effort to capture him?

SHAATH: There are a lot of radicals in Sharon's government who still think of military solutions to everything. Despite the assurances of the United States, that has warned Israel not to "hurt" Arafat, I don't feel safe.

GARDELS: The United States and Israel won't deal with Arafat, even though he has now been strengthened. At the same time, there is no Palestinian government headed by a prime minister. Where do we go from here?

SHAATH: Well, the United States has still been dealing with me officially as the foreign minister of the government that has resigned. (U.S. Secretary of State) Colin Powell has called me a number of times, as do the American representatives here. But that is only temporary.

Within a week, we will have a new government headed by Ahmed Korei as prime minister.

GARDELS: But hasn't he already said he would refuse to be prime minister because he couldn't get the proper assurances of sincerity and support for the peace process from the United States and Israel? Has he changed his mind?

SHAATH: Yes, he changed his mind. After the expulsion order and assassination threats against Arafat, he feels there needs to be a Palestinian government no matter what the circumstances.

GARDELS: Will this new government and a strengthened Arafat have the willingness then to crack down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad? Are they capable?

SHAATH: I, like the majority of Palestinians, are against this endless cycle of violence and counter-violence. Still the Palestinian majority feel the basic unfairness of always focusing on Hamas and Islamic Jihad while ignoring the occupation of the whole of Palestine by the Israelis. This sense of unfairness is not the same as support for these groups. No, it is a mistake to see it that way. But it does make it extremely difficult politically to move against them.

(Shouts and chanting drown out the conversation) ....

While improvements have been made in the past three months, the Palestinian police forces, decimated by the Israelis, are still too weak to take on these groups. We are not yet talking about the capability of confrontation leading to civil war. We are talking about taking measures short of that confrontation.

But our ability to confront these militant groups is not only measured by how many arms and police forces we have. It is measured by how much acceptance there is among the Palestinian public for a confrontation. And that means people must see that Israel is serious about peace and does not only want to disarm the Palestinians so Israelis can continue their occupation.

(c) 2003, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 9/18/03)