- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 26, 2002

JERUSALEM President Bush's Middle East speech was welcomed yesterday by most regional leaders but scorned by the Palestinian people, who rejected the call for Yasser Arafat's ouster as interference in their sovereign affairs.

"Bush's message was clear. He told us to drink from the sea," said Bahira Rezak, a teacher living in Gaza City.

She was among millions of Palestinians who were shocked after waking up and hearing that most of the demands and criticisms in Mr. Bush's Monday afternoon speech were directed at their leadership and not at Israel.

Key among Mr. Bush's demands was for the Palestinians to find new leaders untainted by terror if they wanted U.S. backing for a full-fledged Palestinian state within three years.

"Bush made it seem as if we are the occupiers and the Israelis are the victims," said Mursi, a resident of Ramallah who gave only one name.

"Bush's speech represents [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's vision and positions. We feel angry at this speech, and most of his ideas were negative and unacceptable."

Mr. Arafat himself was unfazed. Choosing a strategy of denial, he told his official news agency to issue a statement praising the speech, and in comments to reporters denied Mr. Bush had any intention of getting rid of him.

Mr. Bush "spoke about a Palestinian state and elections," Mr. Arafat said, reiterating his intention of holding general elections by early next year, seven years after he was overwhelmingly elected Palestinian Authority leader.

Palestinian analyst Ali Jerbawi of Birzeit University predicted Mr. Arafat would bring the presidential and legislative elections forward so the United States would find itself trying to sideline a democratically elected Palestinian leader.

There is no doubt that Mr. Arafat would sweep to victory in an election, as there are no serious contenders to replace him.

"He will tell the world if you want a change in leadership, then the best way to do it is by the ballot, and he will call elections," Mr. Jerbawi said.

Officials in Egypt and Jordan the only Arab states that have signed peace treaties with Israel went out of their way to find something to praise in Mr. Bush's speech.

Jordan said prompt implementation of Mr. Bush's call for Palestinian independence would signal the beginning of the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"We urge Israel to live up to this moment in history. Delay is a recipe for disaster," a government statement said. It added that Palestinian reform "must come from within Palestinian society."

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Mr. Bush's statement was balanced but required clarification.

"If [the Palestinian Authority] has agreed upon [Mr. Bushs program], then we support it, because it is balanced to a great extent," Mr. Mubarak told reporters.

He said Mr. Bush had not called directly for Mr. Arafat's removal, "but rather a reform of the Palestinian Authority."

The speech was welcomed in Israel as a victory for Mr. Sharon's position that terrorism should not be rewarded, although some far-right Israeli politicians complained about the president's endgame plan of an independent Palestinian state, and left-wing politicians said the proposals lacked detail.

Israeli opposition leader Yossi Sarid criticized the speech, which he said could give Mr. Sharon the impression he had a green light to do whatever he wanted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Mr. Bush did tell Israel that it would have to freeze settlement construction and pull its army out of Palestinian-ruled areas, but only after the Palestinians had acted to halt terrorism.

Freezing Jewish settlements could break up Mr. Sharon's governing coalition, which includes several right-wing parties that champion the rights of settlers. But few Israeli analysts believe the Palestinians will go far enough in meeting Mr. Bush's demands for the Israelis to be required to reciprocate.

Newspaper commentators throughout the region defended Mr. Arafat, calling Mr. Bush pro-Israeli.

"Mr. Bush completely adopted the Likud version," said Jamal Khashoggi, an editor at Saudi Arabia's Arab News, referring to Mr. Sharon's party.

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