WASHINGTON – The Bush administration’s scorn for Yasser Arafat as a failed leader persists amid his struggle for control of the Palestinian movement.
“His comments don’t mean a whole lot to me and I am not responding to them in any way,” Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday.
“Mr. Arafat has not been playing a helpful role,” Powell said. “And if he wanted to play a helpful role he would be supporting Prime Minister Abbas, not frustrating his efforts.”
The last time a top U.S. official met with Arafat was back in April 2002 when Powell visited his battered West Bank headquarters.
On Tuesday, Israel’s defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, said Arafat should “disappear” from the Palestinian leadership. Mofaz said Israel may have to decide by the end of the year whether to expel Arafat if he continues to get in the way of the U.S.-backed peace plan.
The response at the State Department from spokesman Richard Boucher was that Powell “has made clear that Arafat is part of the problem at this point and is not helping to bring a solution.”
Still, Boucher said Israel had informed the administration there was no plan to expel Arafat and “our view was that was the right decision.”
“We have said quite clearly he needs to cooperate with the new government. He needs to turn over security services that have remained under his control to the control of the new government so that there can be real and effective action against terrorist groups,” Boucher said.
Arafat was courted by a succession of U.S. administrations who considered him the indispensable Palestinian negotiator with Israel.
His refusal to accept overtures from President Clinton in the summer of 2000 for control of virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza and some Jerusalem neighborhoods was the turning point in souring American and Israeli officials on him.
By the time Powell went to Ramallah in April 2002 the Bush administration was disgusted with Arafat as a leader and had concluded he had had a hand both in terrorism against Israel and in Palestinian financial corruption.
Powell did not spare Arafat’s feelings. He told him the meeting was likely to be their last.
Two months later, Bush, who had shunned Arafat from the outset, urged the Palestinians to replace him with leaders “not compromised by terror” and to adopt democratic reforms that could produce an independent state within three years.
“Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership so that a Palestinian state can be born,” Bush said at the White House.
The administration went on to encourage the emergence of Mahmoud Abbas as prime minister and Mohammed Dahlan as interior minister. Abbas was lauded and invited to the White House.
But there has been no peace, and work on the road map that the United States produced jointly with the United Nations, the European Union and Russia has faltered over terrorist attacks on Israel by Palestinian militants who had agreed to a cease-fire at the urging of Abbas.
“Some progress is being made, slow progress, but progress,” Powell said Wednesday at a news conference. “And once again, terrorists, those who do not want to see a home for the Palestinian people, those who just want to destroy the dreams of the Palestinian people and want to kill innocent people … are setting us back.”
If the road map does not work, he said, “we’re going to go off into a ditch or over a cliff.”
As the region again descends into a cycle of violence, Bush administration officials reject any suggestion the road map has been shelved. Assistant Secretary of State John S. Wolf has shuttled back and forth between Washington and the area to try to promote security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage plans a trip this month.
The clock is ticking on the road map’s goal of a Palestinian state with provisional borders by the end of this year and a full-fledged state by 2005.
The plan requires concessions from both sides. Israel, for instance, is asked to pull back on the West Bank and to freeze construction of Jewish settlements.
But gradually, as terrorist attacks have resumed, culminating in a bloody bus bombing in Jerusalem last month, the Bush administration has subordinated all road map terms to its call for an end to terror.
In agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, administration officials have insisted that the Palestinian leaders dismantle the terror infrastructure on the West Bank and in Gaza and have declared that was a precondition to Israeli concessions.
At the same time, the administration has altered its approach to Israel’s strategy of killing leaders of Hamas and other extremists groups.
For months, senior administration officials and spokesmen had affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself, but balanced that assertion with disapproval of targeted killings.
In the past few weeks, the administration has stopped reciting its disapproval.