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October 12, 2002

EU lining up behind U.S. view on Arafat

The European Union is slowly moving closer to the American view of the Palestinian Authority and its chairman, Yasser Arafat, according to reports that have reached Jerusalem in advance of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's planned trip to Washington next week.

Four days ago, Arafat hosted the EU's foreign policy coordinator, Javier Solana, at his office in Ramallah. Solana reportedly used the meeting to deliver a stern warning and urge Arafat to transfer the reins of power to someone else. Moreover, senior EU and United Nations officials have recently been saying in private conversations that Arafat is an obstacle to reforming the PA and must be replaced.

Solana's visit to Arafat initially elicited strong criticism from both Jerusalem and Washington. Sharon and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer told Solana that his visit had hindered efforts to reform the PA. But once the contents of the conversation became known, the American administration changed its tune and praised the visit.

State Department officials are now working on a "road map" for calming the Israeli-Palestinian violence and restarting negotiations. They have been exchanging drafts of a detailed three-stage plan with European colleagues based on an outline released last month by the Quartet (the U.S., EU, UN and Russia). The plan calls for a cooling-off period, followed by establishment of a Palestinian state with temporary borders, and finally a permanent-status agreement. According to the Quartet's outline, the process will be completed in 2005.

Data reaching Israel indicate that the U.S. draft makes tough demands on both sides. During the first stage, Israel will be required to withdraw to the positions it held before the intifada broke out two years ago and to freeze settlement construction. The Palestinians will have to rebuild their security services under a unified command and implement comprehensive financial and administrative reforms.

The plan also calls for the temporary Palestinian state to be established on more than 50 percent of the West Bank. This means an additional Israeli withdrawal would be necessary, as well as the likely evacuation of some isolated settlements. However, this is still only a draft, and it is not clear the White House will approve it as is. The administration has already promised Israel that it will not take a stance on the final borders, leaving this to direct negotiations between the two parties.

For Sharon, the most problematic part of the plan is the strict timetable. Sharon opposes all timetables, arguing that they merely serve to increase pressure on Israel and absolve the Palestinians of responsibility. Instead, he would like every new stage of the process to be contingent on each side meeting specified benchmarks.

Assistant Secretary of State William Burns will visit the region in the next two weeks with the twofold task of obtaining Arab support for an American attack on Iraq and discussing the "road map" with Israel and the Palestinians so that it can be implemented once the Iraqi issue is settled.

During his meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush next week, Sharon will be devoting considerable attention to "the day after Iraq" in an effort to obtain a pledge that the U.S. will not force an agreement with the Palestinians on Israel. He will also try to determine how much freedom of action the Americans are willing to give him with regard to military operations against the Palestinians, both in the period leading up to an American war on Iraq and during such a war.

Government sources in Jerusalem believe that in the long run, Sharon has no reason to worry, since Bush is not interested in getting deeply involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the near term, however, the White House is demanding quiet on the Israeli-Palestinian front, and some of Sharon's advisers have consequently recommended that he demonstrate flexibility next week, for instance, by a partial withdrawal of the IDF in Gaza or by a meeting with a senior Palestinian official.