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Disagreement Over Arafat's Role a Stumbling Block to Mideast Peace - 2002-07-17

Middle East leaders are waiting to see what happens next following high-level talks Tuesday in New York about how to revive the Middle East peace process. Analysts in the region say disagreement over the role of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remains a stumbling block.

The final statement of the so-called Diplomatic Quartet, top diplomats from the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, stresses the need for extensive Palestinian reforms. But it also calls on Israel to support the emergence of a viable Palestinian state and to ease restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza that are strangling the Palestinian economy.

At the same time, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union have openly voiced their disagreement with the U.S. administration over the role of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. President George Bush has called for a change of leadership and has linked Palestinian reforms to any resumption of peace talks.

Political analyst Dan Tschirgi of the American University in Cairo says U.S. allies may agree that Mr. Arafat is an unwilling peace partner but they also say that as the legitimately elected Palestinian leader he cannot be left out of the equation. "The Europeans are not saying it has to be Arafat who is the leader," he said. "What they are saying is they will not go along with a position that Arafat must be excluded."

Mr. Tschirgi says the U.S. reaction to the disagreement will signal to what extent it is willing to risk a unilateral approach to the peace process. "Now it [the United States] has received clear signals from other actors and it seems to be everybody is waiting for the other shoe to drop now," said Dan Tschirgi . "What will be the American reaction to this? Will there be a signal that the U.S. wants partners in the search for peace or on the contrary is it signaling that Washington is happy to handle the Middle East peace process itself."

But Egyptian analyst Abdel Monem Said of the Al Ahram Strategic Studies Center says Palestinian elections, which are expected early in the new year, may offer a way around the dispute.

Meanwhile, he focuses on the positive aspects of the U.S. effort to widen the involvement of its allies in the Middle East peace effort, as shown by the meeting of the Quartet officials. "I think the concept of the meeting itself stresses the idea that we have a board of directors to deal with the whole process, which is the 'Quartet.' And they bring Egypt and Jordan into the process, regionalizing the issue," he said. "And I believe gradually we will have some sort of an international forum that can deal with the Palestinian question. It is under the process of maturation, but I believe it is a step forward."

After consultations with Secretary of State Colin Powell on Tuesday in New York, the Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers voiced strong support for the Quartet's program to revive the peace process. Mr. Powell and the two ministers are to hold more talks in Washington later this week, joined by the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Said, for his part, endorses efforts to address Israel's security concerns. That is the path, he believes, that will lead Israel to end its occupation of the Palestinian territories. "The Israelis are saying the absence in the last few weeks of suicide bombings is because of their occupation," he said. "The Palestinians are saying the presence of the military occupation is what breeds the suicide bombings so we have here the chicken and the egg problem."

Analysts in the region say the peace effort now must also focus on humanitarian aid to ease the suffering of the Palestinians. But they predict little real movement on the political front until Palestinian elections determine who will lead them through the peace initiative.