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Palestinians Reject Bush Call For Change in Leadership - 2002-06-24

In the Middle East, there has been mixed reaction to President Bush's major policy speech on the way forward in the peace process. Israel welcomed the remarks and Palestinians expressed reservations about some aspects while rejecting outright Mr. Bush's call for a change in Palestinian leadership.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office issued a statement endorsing the President's call for a new Palestinian leadership.

It said "when the Palestinian Authority enacts genuine reforms, including new leadership at the top, such that a different Authority is created, then it will be possible to discus how to make progress on the political tracks."

Mr. Arafat also welcomed some of Mr. Bush's ideas as "a serious effort to push the peace process forward." His official statement did not, however, address Mr. Bush's call for a new Palestinian leadership.

But members of his own cabinet were quick to reject the idea.

Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian Authority's Minister of Labor, told VOA it is not up to Mr. Bush to tell the Palestinian people who should represent them.

"He was calling for free and democratic elections but at the same time he was trying to prejudice the results of the election by putting conditions on who should be elected and who should not be elected," he said.

Not everyone here sees the Bush call for a change at the top in the Palestinian hierarchy as an insurmountable obstacle.

Leslie Susser is senior diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report. He says the president's call for a "new and different" Palestinian leadership may still leave some room for maneuver.

"I don't see them getting rid of Arafat all that quickly," he said. "But what they will say to the Americans is that we have organized new elections and they are due to take place early next year. And that we are in the process of reforming our institutions. What we hope is that America will put pressure on Israel while we are doing these things and not wait until everything is finally completed by the Palestinians before it turns to Israel."

Mr. Bush's policy speech came only hours after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Israel is about to launch a major campaign against the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Speaking to lawmakers from his Likud party, Mr. Sharon said he is preparing massive military action to take care of what he called terrorists, their strongholds and their commanders.

Given this environment, Palestinians are expressing their doubts that Mr. Bush's new policy will lay the groundwork for ending the violence and going back to negotiations.

Ghassan Khatib says it is unfortunate that Mr. Bush put so much of the responsibility for ending the violence on the Palestinian leadership.

"He put stopping the violence as a condition for any political progress and by this he left the future of the region hostage to the will of the extremists. He should have been more sensitive to the fact that the violence is a result of the occupation not that the occupation is continuing until the violence will stop," he said.

Mr. Bush also held out the offer of a sort of provisional statehood for the Palestinians. Some Palestinian leaders have questioned how such a thing is possible. They say either you have statehood or you don't and say they would like further clarification of just what the President means by the term.