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US, International Diplomats to Discuss Bush's Mideast Plan Next Week - 2002-06-29

The United States is sending a senior diplomat to London next week for a four-way meeting with Russian, European Union and U.N. officials aimed at building momentum behind President Bush's Middle East peace plan that calls for new leadership for the Palestinians. There is U.S. criticism, meanwhile, of what is said to be another example of insincerity by the Palestinian Authority in curbing terrorism.

Though several European countries have pointedly said they intend to continue dealing with Palestinian Authority chief Yasser Arafat, officials here insist there is broad support among U.S. allies for the Bush plan, including its call for new Palestinian leadership and far-reaching reforms.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher says the London meeting of the so-called Middle East "quartet" expected on Tuesday will review steps to support and implement the president's vision for the region, which he said is the only realistic way to achieve Palestinian statehood.

"Palestinians, as we've said, deserve better institutions, better leadership and a chance to establish their state. The path that the president laid out is one that we firmly believe is the only path to achieving that, and for them to achieve that," said Mr. Boucher. "We will continue down this path, to pursue this path, because we are committed to that vision that he laid out."

Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns will represent the United States at the "quartet" meeting, and officials say he may go on from London to stops in the Middle East.

Administration officials have said President Bush decided to include the implicit call for Mr. Arafat's ouster in the Middle East message he made last Monday out of frustration over the Palestinian leaders' failure to act effectively against terrorist factions operating in the West Bank and Gaza.

That frustration surfaced again Friday with U.S. criticism of the release from nominal house arrest by the Palestinian Authority of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of the radical Islamic group Hamas, which has claimed responsibility for scores of anti-Israeli attacks including suicide bombings.

Though Mr. Arafat was said to have put Sheikh Yassin under house arrest several days ago, the blind and wheelchair-bound Hamas leader appeared with bodyguards at an anti-U.S. rally in Gaza City Friday, where he told reporters he had never been told of his alleged confinement.

Spokesman Boucher noted the scenario involving Sheikh Yassin has happened before, and is part of an unfortunate pattern of revolving-door justice for Palestinian terror suspects.

"The issue is to put these groups out of business, not to temporarily put them under house arrest," he said. "So, unfortunately it fits a pattern, a pattern that we've noted, and a pattern that the president noted, in terms of the kind of decisions he made about where we had to go, if we were going to achieve anything."

In an Associated Press interview Friday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said he had had "the most direct" of conversations with Mr. Arafat about the need to curb terrorists and reform his administration, but had seen no change or improvement.

At the same time Mr. Powell said there are "responsible" leaders within the Palestinian movement that the United States is eager to work with, and to mobilize international help for.

Mr. Powell said there are no plans at present for U.S. officials to contact or meet with Mr. Arafat, and said he did not know, in his words, "what the future holds" with regard to further American dialogue with him.