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EU concerns at Bush's Mideast plan

Arafat in Ramallah
Arafat says the Palestinians should decide who is their leader  

CNN's Robin Oakley

LONDON, England -- European leaders have broadly welcomed President George W. Bush's new Mideast initiative but with reservations.

They have long accepted U.S. involvement is vital and are encouraged that Bush is now looking to help create a Palestinian state.

At a weekend summit in Seville European Union leaders condemned terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians and agreed the Palestinian Authority needed reform.

But the Europeans are not backing Bush's effective demand -- without naming him -- that the Palestinians should replace Yasser Arafat before they get their own state.

French foreign minister Dominique de Villeprin, visiting Arafat in Ramallah, said it was for the Palestinians to choose their own leader.

That message was repeated by his Germany's Joschka Fischer and by a spokesman for Britain's Tony Blair.

CNN's Robin Oakley says EU ministers give continued support to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (June 25)

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Even Russia's president was insisting Arafat must stay.

Vladimir Putin said: "It would be dangerous and an error to remove him from the political arena as we, the Russian leadership, think it could only lead to radicalisation of the Palestinian movement."

EU leaders, who welcomed Arafat to Brussels last autumn and who are the biggest funders of the Palestinian Authority, have long insisted that Arafat remains an essential part of any peace dialogue.

When in February they called for Palestinian elections they did so in the expectation the contest would give Arafat a new mandate for peace negotiations.

Experts therefore see troubles ahead.

David Butter, of the Middle East Economic Review, said: "It's not actually demanded by Bush that Arafat must go but of course everybody knows that is the subtext.

"When you get down to the details -- of organising elections, of trying to build up Palestinian institutions under current circumstances, when actually putting flesh on the bones of this initiative becomes the issue -- then I think a lot of the European doubts as to this approach will start to come to the fore"

They are not saying so openly, but some European leaders would have liked a little more flesh on the bones of the Bush speech right now.

And they certainly fear any alternative to Arafat might prove even more of a problem. But for the moment they are pleased enough to see a few U.S. cards on the table




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