WASHINGTON – Europe’s disagreement with the Bush administration over shunning Yasser Arafat persisted Monday as the Europeans urgently appealed for direct talks between the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers. Brian Cowen, the Irish foreign minister who represented the 15-nation European Union in a conference with Secretary of State Colin Powell, said the stalled Middle East peace process “remains of deep concern to all of us.”
Speaking for the Europeans, Cowen said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon should meet promptly with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.
In a session with reporters, Cowen said the Europeans had not changed their position on Arafat, which recognizes him as the rightful leader of the Palestinian people. The Bush administration has ruled out dealing with the veteran Palestinian activist because they say he is tainted with terror against Israel. The Americans have dealt only with the prime minister and other senior Palestinian officials appointed by Arafat.
“Obviously, we don’t have a completely agreed position between the United States and the European Union in respect to that particular aspect of the matter,” said Cowen, whose government currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.
He said it was important to help the two sides “to take small, concrete and visible steps” under the “road map” for peacemaking developed by the United States and endorsed by the United Nations, Russia and the European Union.
Cowen’s statement followed a closed session with Powell about the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iraq. Afterward, Powell said they had a useful discussion on President Bush’s drive for democratic change among Arab governments, which is involved in both the other issues.
“We see great opportunity and scope for cooperation on a Greater Middle East Initiative,” Powell said.
But in London, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Western countries should not try to dictate the pace of change in the region.
Democratic reform cannot be imposed but should come from within, Straw said.
On Iraq, Powell said completion of an interim constitution in Baghdad was a tremendous achievement and a step toward the United States’ transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis on July 1.
Powell said there remain unsettled issues involving the Kurds and other matters, which he did not explain.
Powell said the issues would be considered “as we go forward and get to the actual writing of a final constitution in due course.”
Meanwhile, preparations for Sharon to meet with Bush were taken up by Sharon’s chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, with Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security adviser.
Weisglass and Rice also reviewed Sharon’s proposal for withdrawing from Gaza and part of the West Bank, an offer the Bush administration warmed to after some hesitation.
The White House and State Department said nothing about the talks, including any date for Sharon to come to Washington to see Bush, Powell and Rice.