Bush pushing for Palestinian elections, even of strongman

Monday, November 15, 2004

WASHINGTON President George Bush is moving quickly in the aftermath of the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to signal U.S. support for elections and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The United States would not object if Palestinians elected a strongman as their leader, he said.

"I believe we've got a great chance to establish a Palestinian state, and I intend to use the next four years to spend the capital of the United States on such a state," Bush said.

The president said he would not oppose the election of a Palestinian strongman who would crack down on insurgency groups. In a joint statement, Bush and Blair said a Palestinian state would require a "credible and unified security structure capable of providing security for the Palestinians and fighting terrorism."

"The Palestinians may decide to elect a real strong personality, but we'll hold their feet to fire to make sure that democracy prevails, that there are free elections," Bush said. "And if they don't the people of the Palestinian territory don't like the way this person is responding to their needs, they will vote him or her out."

Administration officials said that over the last week Bush has relayed this message to a range of European and Arab leaders, some of whom have urged the establishment of an interim Palestinian state in 2005. The officials said Bush and senior aides were also in contact with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart, Ahmed Qurei.

Bush has assured Middle East and "I believe it is in the interests of the world that a truly free state develop," Bush said. "The first step of that is going to be the election of a new president, and my fervent hope is that new president embraces the notion of a democratic state."

European allies that he intends to make the establishment of a Palestinian state a priority.

But Bush said any such state must be democratic and live in peace with Israel. He said the United States would help arrange Palestinian elections over the next two months.

On Nov. 12, Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair discussed U.S. efforts to advance Middle East peace in 2005. The two men were said to have agreed to help restore Palestinian institutions in wake of the death of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Officials said Bush has urged Sharon to help facilitate Palestinian elections. They said Washington has requested such measures as the removal of Israeli military roadblocks in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a freeze on construction of new neighborhoods in Israeli communities and the release of funds meant for the PA.

Bush has not announced a timetable for a Palestinian state, saying he first envisions the implementation of Israel's plan for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. The Israeli withdrawal was scheduled to take place in September 2005.

"I think it's unrealistic to say, 'Well, Bush wants it done, or Blair wants it done, therefore it will happen,'" Bush said. "But I think it is very possible that it can happen because I believe people want to live in a free society, and our job is to help it happen."

Bush's statement was part of what officials termed a more assertive U.S. policy in the Middle East. They said such a policy, promoted by a presidential envoy, could be launched during a meeting of Arab and European leaders in December.

Over the last 10 days, the White House has discussed the Middle East with ambassadors from Britain, France, Germany and Italy. Officials said the ambassadors were assured that Bush intended to involve Europe in Middle East issues, particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"I understand the importance of Iraq," Secretary of State Colin Powell said. "I understand the overhang that that and the Middle East has on how we are viewed in the world, and the impression that some people have of us. But it's an impression that will change as we start showing our success, such as the kind of success we showed in [last month's election in] Afghanistan."

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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