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John King: U.S. lobbies for Palestinian changes

CNN's John King
CNN's John King  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration's Middle East strategy deliberations Thursday increasingly focused on rallying Arab support for reforms of the Palestinian Authority.

CNN Senior White House Correspondent John King filed the following report.

KING: The proposed reforms include a Palestinian Constitution and a position equivalent to prime minister. That's part of an effort to create a new generation of leadership and make Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat more of a symbolic leader with little day-to-day role in Palestinian decision-making.

But because this is viewed as what one senior official called "a project in its infancy," the administration continues to believe Arafat has to be viewed as a central figure in any current and short-term strategies for trying to make progress in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

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A senior U.S. official said the project is in its infancy, and the official said there is no commitment from Arafat himself. The official added that the idea that the project can be completed anytime soon is not realistic. That does not mean it is unimportant, the official said, but Arafat is the authority today and will be tomorrow and the next day.

The idea of significant Palestinian reforms was a topic of [discussion] Wednesday night in President Bush's conversations with Jordan's King Abdullah II, U.S. and Jordanian officials said. Bush and his team voiced hope the subject would be pushed during a weekend meeting in Egypt to be attended by Arafat and Arab leaders.

The Bush national security team has, for the past two weeks, added the theme of Palestinian reforms and corruption to its discussion of the challenges facing Arafat. In the short term, the focus is on security matters, as highlighted by CIA Director George Tenet's planned trip to the region to discuss bringing Palestinian security forces under a single command.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Israeli journalists that he and Bush agreed there could be no peace process until there were significant Palestinian reforms that included moving Arafat into a symbolic role.

U.S. officials vehemently dispute that; they say Bush agreed such reforms were important and need to be addressed as soon as possible but that the president also believes that Arafat remains the central player and therefore has to be dealt with on pressing matters, even as discussions about longer term reforms get under way.

At Thursday's White House press briefing, spokesman Ari Fleischer demurred when asked several times whether the administration believed Arafat was the right man to lead the Palestinians.

Fleischer said the president's focus on it is in hopes that talk of reform will lead to a better day for the Palestinian people. He said Bush will leave it to the Palestinian people to decide who their leaders will be.

Another U.S. official said one short-term obstacle to furthering the discussions is that Sharon is making it such a critical issue in public -- the idea being it is a harder sell to the Palestinians and Arab nations who would have to lobby Arafat for changes when the call for change is coming from an Israeli leader so distrusted in the Arab world.

Another complicating factor is that several top Arafat deputies who have at times been considered possible successors or power brokers within some expanded Palestinian political structure are now accused by Israel of having a direct and active role in planning or at least supporting terror attacks.

Among those within the administration advocating an aggressive focus on Palestinian accountability and political change are Vice President Dick Cheney and top Pentagon officials, led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary Douglas Feith.

Secretary of State Colin Powell is said by senior officials to enthusiastically share the goal of a more accountable Palestinian political structure but also has stressed that any diplomatic progress is dependent on working with Arafat.

The United States also has made clear to Sharon that it would view expelling Arafat from the Palestinian territories as counterproductive and as something that likely would cause Arab support for recent diplomatic discussions to collapse.




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