- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2003

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt — Arab leaders, despite a public embrace of President Bush’s Mideast peace initiative, remained reluctant partners yesterday over normalizing ties with Israel and the sidelining of Yasser Arafat.

“Bush came to the Middle East at the height of his power, crowned by the victory in Iraq,” political analyst Salama Ahmed Salama wrote in the Egyptian pro-government daily Al-Ahram.

“He offered an American vision here for a new Middle East but those who reject or hate any American vision or proposal have multiplied,” Mr. Salama added.

He was apparently referring to Arab anger over the U.S. invasion of Iraq and U.S. support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

At his summit Tuesday in Sharm el Sheik, Mr. Bush briefed Arab leaders on the broad outlines of a new Middle East where a Palestinian state — without Mr. Arafat at the helm — would live in peace with Israel.

According to this vision, the Arab countries would undertake political and economic reforms and join Israel in setting up a free-trade zone with the United States over the next 10 years.

But the Bush administration’s elevation of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas over Mr. Arafat continued to meet resistance from the Arab leaders.

Mr. Arafat remained out of the public eye at summits with Arab leaders in Egypt Tuesday and at yesterday’s summit in Jordan between the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers.

Mr. Abbas himself criticized the U.S. decision to sideline Mr. Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority, with whom he said he has good relations and cooperation. The Bush administration considers Mr. Arafat too tainted by terrorism to negotiate.

An Egyptian official said Egypt still considered Mr. Arafat the elected Palestinian leader and would maintain contacts with him.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Moasher, interviewed on CNN yesterday, also stressed that Mr. Arafat “remains the Palestinian elected leader” while Mr. Abbas “is the prime minister, responsible for daily affairs.”

The Arabs ignored a U.S. request to include references only to the Palestinian government of Mr. Abbas in their final statement, and twice mentioned “the Palestinian Authority,” sources close to Arab delegations said.

The Arab leaders also resisted a U.S. request to normalize quickly their relations with Israel, arguing they would only do so as part of a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East, participants said.

The United States additionally raised with its Arab allies the sensitive question of embarking on domestic political reforms as well as setting up a free-trade zone in the region, sources close to the participants said.

However, the Arabs were hesitant, saying only that they will “pursue their major efforts to achieve political, economic and social reforms” and “welcome the initiative of the United States.”

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