Middle East: Reactions to Bush speech - 27 June, 2002

The speech given by George Bush on Monday, calling for the Palestinian Authority to elect a new leadership which will serve the Palestinian people better, has brought mixed reactions, the most curious of which from the Palestine Authority itself.

Extremists on both sides were quick to criticise George Bush’s speech on Washington’s policy for the Middle East. The Conservative Israeli politician Benyamin Elon declared that Bush was giving a reward to the Palestinian terrorists and would foment more terrorist attacks, while Palestinian extremist group Hamas, which has been responsible for virtually all the terrorist attacks inside Israel since the Al Aqsa Intifada was launched in September 2000, declared that the speech changes nothing and the violence will proceed.

From the Israeli government, Ariel Sharon has every reason to be satisfied since the speech could have been written by a member of his Likud Party, as Reuven Ritlin, Israeli Communications Minister, pointed out. The message is clear that a future Palestinian State will exist, but without Yasser Arafat.

As for the Palestine Authority, it has reacted in the only way it can, accepting the broad message and welcoming the inclusion of the term “Palestinian State” but curiously ignoring the minor detail that George Bush has told the Palestinians to vote not only for a new leadership, but a different one, while at the same time making an overt reference to Arafat’s supposed connection with terrorism: “Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership so that a Palestinian State can be formed”, and “I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror”.

The Palestine Authority originally had a reflex reaction, claiming that it was “unacceptable” that Washington should interfere in the democratic process of the elections. Saeb Erakat, Palestinian Minister of Local Collectivities, declared that “We do not accept leaders dropped by parachute from Washington or anywhere else” and that it is up to the Palestinian people to choose their leader. However, Nabil Shaath, a spokesperson for Yasser Arafat again trapped inside his headquarters in Ramallah, declared that his leadership agrees to a fair and free election, given that international observers are allowed to monitor it.

The Palestine Authority was quick to point out that Yasser Arafat had already called an election for next January. An official statement issued in Gaza on Tuesday claimed that “The President Yasser Arafat and the leadership of the Palestine Authority agree with the ideas proposed by Bush, which could seriously contribute towards a re-launching of the peace process and call for the opening of discussions for these ideas to be put in place”. However, one detail remains: both Sharon and Bush have declared, in no uncertain terms, that Arafat is a persona non grata.

This issue of who chooses the President is the one most focussed by the international community. The Russian Foreign Ministry has issued a statement which declares that Russia supports the end of Israeli occupation and an end to the colonies and praises the fight against terrorism. The European Union and the United Kingdom, separately, declare that it is the Palestinians who should choose whether or not they elect Yasser Arafat, while the Chinese Foreign Ministry is of the opinion that the Palestine Authority “should begin its reconstruction rapidly and that the new Palestinian government, under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, can work more effectively”.

It remains to be seen exactly how Washington or Tel Aviv intend to take Yasser Arafat out of the political puzzle, especially if he is re-elected by his people, as would be the case judging by the opinion polls, which place him far ahead of his rivals with some 35% of voting intentions.


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