/ 14 June 2002

Bush, Powell in public split over Israel

United States moves to launch a Middle East peace initiative were in chaos on Thursday after a split between President George W Bush and his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, burst into the open.

The White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, delivered a public rebuke to Powell for floating proposals that included creation of a “temporary” Palestinian state.

He accused Powell of parroting the ideas of foreign government leaders rather than reaching his own conclusions. Against a background of continuing violence in Israel and the occupied territories, Bush is to make a speech within days that is meant to revive the peace process. But Bush and Powell are divided over the content.

Bush is leaning heavily towards Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who returned to Israel on Wednesday after two days of talks in Washington. Powell appears to be more sympathetic towards the Palestinian position.

Sharon broke his flight home to stop in London to brief British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the US visit. In an hour-long discussion at Downing Street, Blair pressed him to re-engage in the political process rather than rely solely on military solutions, according to a Downing Street spokesperson.

An Israeli government spokesperson said Sharon had been explicit about the “terror” that Israel faced and had told Blair that “any kind of political talks will have to follow the end of terror”.

Britain is encouraging Israel to drop its preconditions to entering the political process: an end to Palestinian attacks on Israelis and reform of the Palestinian Authority.

But there is no prospect of political negotiations without impetus being provided by Washington, which was in a state of paralysis.

Powell, in an interview with a London-based Arab paper, al-Hayat, floated a series of ideas, including the creation of the “temporary” Palestinian state, a halfway house on the way to full statehood.

Powell echoed Arab demands for “the end of the occupation” of the West Bank and Gaza by Israel, for “the creation of a state called Palestine” and for “the end of settlement activity”.

He said that Bush will announce “in the very near future” how he intends to secure a Palestinian state. Monday has been pencilled in for Bush’s speech, but the timing could slip given the splits within the administration.

Powell said that Bush had not ruled out setting a timetable for the creation of a Palestinian state. The Palestinians want the timetable but Sharon is opposed to it.

Powell also stressed the importance of holding an international conference to discuss the options for peace and, in contrast with Bush and Sharon, to continue to work with the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.

“It’s up to the Palestinian people to determine who their leader is, to determine who should head their government,” Powell said.

Hours after the al-Hayat interview was published, Fleischer said Powell’s proposals would be treated as advice that Bush may or may not heed.

“Welcome to the Middle East. This is a situation where people get a variety of information, a variety of advice and if the president has anything further to indicate, he will.”

Fleischer said the secretary of state was acting on advice he had heard from foreign leaders rather than stating his own conclusions. “The secretary, from time to time, will reflect on the advice that he gets and do so publicly, which is his prerogative.”

Meanwhile, on Thursday Israeli forces pulled out of the West Bank town of Ramallah, lifting their latest blockade on Arafat’s office.

Palestinian police and security officers ran into Arafat’s battered compound and celebrated, chanting slogans in support of the Palestinian leader, as Israeli tanks rolled away from the city-block-sized complex late on Wednesday. Early on Thursday Israeli forces raided a village near the West Bank city of Jenin, another of the nearly daily raids made into Palestinian areas.

With the Israeli forces out of Ramallah, the new Palestinian Cabinet was to convene for the first time on Thursday evening at the headquarters, said Arafat’s aide, Nabil Abu Rdeneh.

The meeting had been set for June 10 but was cancelled because of the Israeli incursion. Arafat announced a new Cabinet on last Sunday, trimming membership from 31 to 21 ministers.

The Israeli forces had moved into position early last Monday, cutting off the entrances to the compound but not entering.

The Israelis said their object this time was to prevent gunmen from taking refuge in the compound. During Israel’s 34-day siege of Arafat’s office that ended at the beginning of May, several hundred Palestinians were trapped inside with Arafat, including many armed men.

Wednesday was mostly violence-free. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades issued a leaflet claiming responsibility for a bombing on Tuesday in the Israeli city of Herzliya, in which a 15-year-old girl was killed.