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Arafat Questions Bush Statement on Palestinian State - 2004-05-08

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat said Saturday it is still possible to establish an independent state for his people by 2005, as called for in the international road map for peace plan. He was reacting to a statement by President Bush that expectations of reaching this goal by next year are unrealistic.

Mr. Arafat told reporters on Saturday that the establishment of an independent Palestinian state by 2005 is, "more than realistic."

He says the Palestinians had expected such a state would come into being five years ago, under the Oslo peace accords, which expired at the end of 1999.

Mr. Arafat was reacting to President Bush's comments on the state of the international road map for peace plan, which became the accepted basis for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after the collapse of the Oslo accords.

Mr. Bush told an Egyptian newspaper that the road map's timetable for establishing a Palestinian state by 2005 was not as realistic as when the objective was first declared two years ago.

He said the resignation of key Palestinian officials and continued violence meant the date for founding a Palestinian state had been pushed further into the future.

Mr. Bush's statements were also challenged by members of the Palestinian leadership, including Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, who said he still believed it was possible to reach a negotiated end to the conflict with Israel by next year.

Mr. Qureia's comments were echoed by Palestinian Negotiations Minister Saeb Erekat.

He says by challenging the timetable, Mr. Bush is undermining one of the most essential elements of the road map.

Mr. Erekat says that such a position plays into the hands of the Israeli government, which he says is trying to prevent a Palestinian state from being established.

He also accused Israel of trying to undermine peacemaking efforts by making plans to kill President Arafat.

"We take very seriously the Israeli threats on President Arafat's life," he said. "A government in Israel that says [there are] no partners [on the Palestinian side] and unilateral steps, ultimately we get to the point of destroying the Palestinian Authority and killing President Arafat."

Mr. Erekat was commenting on Mr. Arafat's decision to fortify his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, for fear of an imminent Israeli attack.

The move on Thursday followed recent comments by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that he is no longer bound to a promise he made to President Bush not to harm Mr. Arafat.

Israeli security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Israel has a contingency plan for capturing and expelling Mr. Arafat from the West Bank.

The officials stressed, however, there are no immediate plans to carry out such an operation.