Bush ramps up anti-Arafat rhetoric

US President George Bush has ramped up pressure on the Palestinians to dump Yasser Arafat, but this keystone of his Middle East peace plan generated little enthusiasm among assembled G8 leaders.

Bush threatened to withhold new US aid from the Palestinians if they fail to shed the Palestinian Authority chairman in elections early next year, as the White House said the president had “given up hope” for Arafat to enact reforms.

“The status quo is simply unacceptable and it should be unacceptable to them,” Bush said on Wednesday, referring to the Palestinians, as he met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the sidelines of the G8 summit.

The US leader set hard-to-reach benchmarks for the Palestinians to achieve to win an independent state on Monday, including an appeal to drop Arafat in favour of a new leadership “not compromised by terror”.

“The president has given up hope that Yasser Arafat can be the one to implement reform. If it was Yasser Arafat, it would have been done a long time ago,” White House representative Ari Fleischer said.

Leaders gathered here generally echoed Bush’s frustration with the Palestinian president but stopped short of joining the call for his ousting, insisting it was up to the Palestinians to choose their own leaders.

Bush drew a muddled response from Canada, with Prime Minister Jean Chretien saying that replacing Arafat “might be a good thing” after Foreign Minister Bill Graham said it was not “appropriate to say whether he is fit or unfit”.

Later Chretien tried to clarify the position.

“I said that it is going to be the people of Palestine who will decide the leader, it is premature for me to conclude who will be the leader, we have to wait for the elections.”

Meeting with Bush early on Wednesday, Blair did not explicitly say Arafat must go, but warned the Palestinians they should not expect progress towards an independent state unless they elect a leadership that “resists and totally rejects terrorism”.

“It’s for the Palestinians to elect the people that they choose to elect,” he said.
“But it’s for us to say the consequences of electing people who aren’t serious negotiating partners is that we can’t move this forward.”

After a bilateral exchange late on Tuesday, Chretien said Bush “talks about perhaps it will be better to replace Mr Arafat. I don’t have a specific point of view on that. It might be a good thing”.

French President Jacques Chirac said it was “up to the Palestinian people, and to them alone, to choose their representatives” and called for an international conference to discuss Bush’s plan.

Earlier on Wednesday, Arafat threw down a challenge to Bush, calling for January elections that the Palestinian leader is likely to win and expanding on his proposed reforms.

Faced with the prospect of Arafat winning re-election, Bush warned the “free world” could withhold aid to the Palestinians unless they showed concrete progress on the reforms he has demanded.

“I can assure you we won’t be putting money into a society which is not transparent and corrupt and I suspect other countries won’t either,” he replied when asked who would judge whether the Palestinians have gone far enough.

US officials hastened to explain that Bush was not referring to current humanitarian aid—such as food or housing assistance—but to potential future assistance to Palestinian institutions.

Bush said he would use “diplomatic pressure” to convince the Palestinians to abandon terrorism, but said: “I’m never ruling out military. All options are available”.

“We all have responsibilities and in this case the tool I’m using is diplomatic pressure to work with our friends and allies to convince all parties they have a responsibility to bear,” he said. - Sapa-AFP

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