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Arafat Downplays Apparent US Call for His Ouster - 2002-06-25

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat says it is up to the Palestinian people to decide who should lead them, and he is downplaying the idea that U.S. President George W. Bush called for his ouster in a speech on Middle East policy on Monday.

When asked if he thought Mr. Bush was referring to him when he said the Palestinians must be led by those "not compromised by terror," Mr. Arafat said "definitely not."

The Palestinian leader said that issue is to be decided by the Palestinian people.

Though Mr. Arafat does not consider Mr. Bush's remarks a call for his removal, many others in the region clearly do.

Palestinian Cabinet Minster Saeb Erekat says Mr. Bush's call is unacceptable. He says Mr. Arafat was democratically elected and Mr. Bush must respect the right of the Palestinian people to choose their leader without outside interference.

Mr. Bush's call for a change at the top of the Palestinian hierarchy comes seven months after Israel's cabinet declared the Palestinian leader "irrelevant" and broke off all direct contacts with him.

The Israeli government welcomed Mr. Bush's ideas. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office issued a statement endorsing the call for new Palestinian leadership. It said when the Palestinian Authority enacts genuine reform then it will be possible to discus how to make political progress.

Cabinet Minister Danny Naveh says that the president's address represents, "the end of the Arafat era and the victory of Israel's position."

Israeli commentators saw Mr. Bush's speech as a clear call for Mr. Arafat's ouster.

Writing in the Israel daily Ma'ariv, Hemi Shalev said, "one can only imagine Sharon watching the speech on TV and the smile on his face, spreading wider and wider until he cries with joy when he hears Bush's demand … for, the political heads of Yasser Arafat and his crew on a platter." He added, "the implicit message of Bush's speech is that he has accepted Sharon's formula that Mr. Arafat is [equal to Osama] bin Laden" and the Palestinian Authority resembles the Taleban."

Another Israeli commentator, columnist Nahum Barnea, expressed doubt that the speech would lead to the rejection of Mr. Arafat by his fellow Palestinians.

Writing in the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Mr. Barnea said: "Bush's call to replace the [Palestinian] leadership, to wit Arafat, will achieve the exact opposite: it will force the Palestinian leadership to rally round the besieged Arafat once again."