- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 8, 2002

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat defiantly stated his allegiance to Yasser Arafat yesterday, a day before participating in the highest-level talks with the United States since President Bush called for new leaders to replace the Palestinian Authority president.

"Where do you think I came from, Mars?" asked Mr. Erekat, who will take part today in meetings at the White House and the State Department. "I am part of Arafat's leadership. The alternative to Arafat is chaos."

Mr. Erekat also rebuked Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for calling Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip "so-called occupation" and questioning the need for Israel to withdraw from settlements there.

He noted that Mr. Bush called on June 24 for the creation of an independent Palestinian state and for Israel to end its occupation and halt settlement activity. It was in that same speech that Mr. Bush said peace "requires a new and different Palestinian leadership so that a Palestinian state can be born."

"I thought there was only one American foreign policy," Mr. Erekat said of the defense secretary's remarks in a question-and-answer session with Pentagon staff.

He also said hunger is spreading in the Palestinian community due to Israeli military controls and argued that Palestinians are unable to rein in suicide bombers because Israel has destroyed Palestinian police stations and arrested 6,279 Palestinian police.

Israel is to withdraw troops from parts of the West Bank and Gaza in return for Palestinian security guarantees under a plan approved by the Palestinian Cabinet yesterday. Leaders of the dominant Fatah movement have yet to agree.

The plan, presented by Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, would end nearly two years of Israeli military presence in areas previously given to the Palestinians under the Oslo accords.

Mr. Erekat, the Palestinian minister for local government, refused to distance himself from Mr. Arafat despite Mr. Bush's June 24 speech in which he linked the Palestinian leader to terrorism and said, "No nation can negotiate with terrorists."

Israel dramatically stepped up security measures after the speech, placing West Bank cities under almost permanent curfew, but has been unable to halt the wave of suicide bombings that has killed 20 persons since last week.

The violence will overshadow Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's talks today with Mr. Erekat, Interior Minister Abdel Raza Yehiyeh and Economy Minister Maher Masri. The Palestinians will first meet National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice at the White House.

"They are going to talk about Palestinian civil-reform efforts, the renewing of security cooperation and making progress on political dialogue," a State Department official said yesterday

"These are leaders with whom we feel we can have useful and productive discussions," said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "I don't know if they represent the new leadership Mr. Bush called for June 24."

He noted that Israeli leaders have met with these same Palestinians.

Mr. Erekat called for European and American monitors to help with elections later this year.

"We all agree there should be a Palestinian state within three years the question is how do we get there?" he said. "Don't we need timelines and way stations?"

He complained of the hardships endured by the Palestinians since Israeli forces sealed off towns and cities in response to two years of violence that has killed about 1,700 Palestinians and about 500 Israelis.

"Not a single Palestinian vehicle can move" between Palestinian cities, he said. "Doctors cannot get to their hospitals." Describing the West Bank and Gaza as "the biggest prison in history," he said the siege "must end."


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