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Powell Has No Plan to Answer Arafat's Letter - 2002-07-12

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has written a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell on reforms being undertaken by the Palestinian Authority, but officials say he is unlikely to get a high-level U.S. reply. Mr. Powell is preparing for meetings on the Middle East next week with top Russian, European and U.N. officials as well as his counterparts from key moderate Arab states.

There has been no senior-level U.S. contact with the Palestinian leader since President Bush's June 24 Middle East policy message in which he endorsed both statehood and new leadership for the Palestinians.

And officials here say that will not change despite Mr. Powell's receipt this week of a letter from Mr. Arafat, in which he says he has embarked upon major reforms of his administration, but that they can go no farther while Israel occupies large areas of the West Bank.

At a briefing here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher confirmed that Secretary Powell has read the Arafat letter but has no plans to respond to it. "The letter that you're speaking of is a letter that we received earlier this week from Chairman Arafat for Secretary Powell," he said. "In it, he discusses recent moves at reform by Palestinians. We're reviewing the letter, the secretary has read the letter. The staff is examining it and considering it. We will consider the ideas that are presented. The secretary, as you know, has stated that he doesn't have any plans for contacting Chairman Arafat. That remains the case."

Mr. Boucher said U.S. diplomats have maintained contact with a wide array of Palestinians including officials of the Palestinian Authority and that any response to the Arafat letter would come through such contacts.

In an interview Friday with the Qatar-based Arab television network al-Jazeera, Mr. Powell reiterated he does not deal with Mr. Arafat, and that Bush administration is looking forward to dialogue with other Palestinian leaders.

He also repeated the U.S. commitment to establishing a Palestinian state, and said President Bush is ready to use all his authority and influence to realize that. But Mr. Powell said the leadership change must come first, together with an end to terror and violence.

In that regard, the secretary said Israel is holding Palestinian areas with some reluctance in order to control terrorist activities, and he said when they are under control, the United States can return to pressuring Israel to pull out of areas re-occupied in recent weeks.

Mr. Powell will join U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, European Union chief diplomat Javier Solana and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov at a New York Hotel on Tuesday for a meeting aimed a coordinating policy on Israel-Palestinian peace efforts.

The members of the so-called Middle East "quartet" are to be joined later that evening by Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher and his Egyptian counterpart Ahmed Maher.

Officials here say the Arab officials, with the likely addition of Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, will have talks in Washington with Mr. Powell later in the week.