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Arafat, Bush administration differ over speech

Without mentioning Yasser Arafat by name, President Bush backed an independent Palestinian state based on the condition of new leadership.  

RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat said Tuesday he thought U.S. President Bush's speech Monday on Middle East policy did not call for his removal, but Bush administration officials expressed a different view.

Asked by a reporter if the Bush speech meant his ouster is coming, Arafat said, "First of all it's clear that what you're saying is not accurate. President Bush talked about a Palestinian state and elections and we are proud to be a democratic state. We had elections on this Palestinian land under international supervision ... and our people are proud to be living in a democracy."

But in Washington, Bush administration officials said that while Bush did not mention Arafat by name, his meaning was clear. Sources told CNN that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell had warned Arafat earlier this year that it was time for him to go.

In his speech, Bush called on the Palestinian people "to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror." (Highlights from Bush's proposal)

After a meeting with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, Arafat said he welcomed Bush's speech because he called for the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

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But in his first public remarks since Bush's speech, Arafat said "the Palestinians will choose their own leaders." He repeated an earlier declaration that the Palestinians will hold elections for his job and for the Palestinian legislature in January, with local elections to follow in March.

De Villipin and other European leaders said the Palestinian people must be allowed to pick their own leaders. (Full story)

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office issued a statement Monday saying that "Israel is a country that wants peace."

"The prime minister has said several times that when there would be a complete cessation of terror, violence and incitement, and the Palestinian Authority undergoes true reform and will be headed by a new leadership so that a different authority will be created, it will be possible to discuss advancing on the political level," the statement said.

One of the key players among Arab leaders, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, called Bush's speech "balanced," but noted that Bush did not specially call for Arafat's ouster. He said he is eager to talk with Powell about how Bush's vision will be implemented.

"I've had a look at the speech and, on the face of it, it looks balanced. However, it needs clarification and explanation. We are expecting the secretary of state so we can discuss the details and how we implement the changes," Mubarak said. "... It expects contributions from the Israelis and the Palestinians. In the past they would have said Arafat must go. Now they are asking just for reform of the Palestinian Authority and a new authority to be formed with a wider mandate."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Tuesday it is up to the Palestinians to elect their leaders.

"With regard to who leads the Palestinians, it is up to them to make that decision," Annan said. "They elected Arafat; they are planning new elections, so let them elect their new leaders."

Speaking on his arrival at U.N. headquarters, Annan said that given Israel's occupation of Palestinian areas, the time is "not optimal" for elections.

"You could find yourself in a situation that the radicals are ones who get elected" in reaction to the occupation, Annan said. "It should be a result of a democratic process." He said political and economic reforms by the Palestinians should not be a condition for the peace process

Annan said there are aspects of Bush's proposals that would need to be clarified and that the other members of the "quartet" on the Mideast -- the European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- would have to sit down with U.S. officials to determine how to implement the plan.




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