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US Repeats Call for End to Standoff Over Palestinian Leadership - 2003-04-22

The United States pressed Tuesday for an end to the political stalemate blocking confirmation of a new Palestinian cabinet headed by prime minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas. Mr. Abbas has until the end of Wednesday to either complete a government or step aside.

Officials here are siding with Mr. Abbas in a bitter struggle with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat over cabinet choices that has brought the process of building a reformist Palestinian government close to collapse.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the Palestinians will not have an empowered prime minister capable of leading them to statehood unless that prime minister can choose his own cabinet. And in implied criticism of Mr. Arafat, he said those blocking the process are hurting the interests of the Palestinian people.

"There is strong international interest in seeing an empowered prime minister with his choice of cabinet so that we can get on with the work that benefits the Palestinian people. And any delay, any obstruction to that process is really just hurting the Palestinian people and keeping them from achieving their aspirations," Mr. Boucher said.

Mr. Boucher declined to discuss possible alternatives to Mr. Abbas in case the Wednesday deadline passes without a breakthrough on the cabinet.

He said Mr. Abbas, a moderate who has criticized the violent uprising against Israel that began nearly three years ago, is up to the task of running a new Palestinian government and that there is no reason for a change or further delay.

"We have somebody who can do the job, who has people who can be approved according to most observers by the legislature, and they need to get on with it. It's important that they not miss this opportunity and start suddenly looking for alternative to something that looks like it clearly to allthat it will work," Mr. Boucher said.

The Bush administration has said it will release the long-delayed international "roadmap" for Middle East peace once a government headed by Mr. Abbas is approved by the Palestinian Legislative Council.

The roadmap calls for a series of steps by the parties, including a halt to Palestinian violence and an end to Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza, leading to a two-state solution to the conflict by the end of 2005.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, who intends to make an early diplomatic visit to the region to promote the peace plan, discussed the Palestinian cabinet crisis by telephone Tuesday with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and the Foreign Minister of Qatar, Hamad bin-Jasim al-Thani.