- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003

JERUSALEM — Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said yesterday that he, not his prime minister, is in charge of the Palestinian side in negotiations with Israel, throwing plans for an Israeli-Palestinian summit into disarray.

The move underlined the power struggle between Mr. Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, the prime minister he grudgingly appointed under international pressure, as efforts intensified to move forward on a new peace plan.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, meanwhile, clarified yesterday a comment that caused a stir the day before, when he spoke of Israeli “occupation,” a term often used by Palestinians and their dovish Israeli backers in the West Bank, for the first time.

In a statement, Mr. Sharon said he was referring to Israeli rule over Palestinians, not over the land, underlining his policy that Israel must retain strategic parts of the West Bank. Palestinians demand a total Israeli pullout.

In a speech yesterday, Mr. Sharon said, “We are not occupiers. This is the homeland of the Jewish people.”

Mr. Abbas and Mr. Sharon had been expected to hold talks today on implementing the U.S.-backed “road map” for peace, their second meeting since Mr. Abbas assumed office in April.

But at a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee, Mr. Arafat said he wanted to review Israeli proposals on security arrangements before approving another summit — raising the possibility of a delay, a member of the panel said on the condition of anonymity.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo later said the summit will be held today as planned.

Sharon aide Raanan Gissin, however, denied that. “There will be no meeting Wednesday,” he told the Associated Press. Israeli radio reported that the summit would take place tomorrow, but officials in Mr. Sharon’s office said no date had been set. The Israelis had no further comment.

The State Department said it had been informed by the two sides that the postponement was because of “technical reasons,” not Mr. Arafat’s intervention.

“It’s up to the two parties to set the time of their meetings,” said spokesman Richard Boucher, noting that previous Israeli-Palestinian meetings to discuss the road map had experienced similar delays.

But the Bush administration has made no secret of its wish to see Mr. Arafat sidelined in the talks and last week blamed him for trying to undermine the negotiations.

“We have seen indications where [Mr. Arafat] is undercutting” Mr. Abbas, a senior State Department official told reporters during Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s trip to Europe last week.

“I think this is time for Arafat to realize that if he has any interest in peace … he ought to be using his power, his authority, his influence with the Palestinian people to help the new prime minister get the job done,” the official said.

The White House said last night that plans for President Bush to meet next week in Jordan with Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas “are still on track,” despite the declaration by Mr. Arafat.

“Our views with respect to who our interlocutors are on the Palestinian side are quite clear. We believe that Prime Minister Abbas is somebody who is committed to fighting terror, and we look forward to working with him,” a senior administration official said on the condition of anonymity. “Our plans are unchanged.”

The PLO executive member said the jockeying over the Sharon-Abbas summit was intended to send a message to the United States, Israel and Mr. Abbas that Mr. Arafat makes the decisions on negotiations.

Mr. Arafat has been fighting a rear-guard action to limit Mr. Abbas’ powers — objecting to the makeup of his Cabinet, retaining control of most Palestinian security forces and keeping for himself the final word on peace moves.

The law that brought in Mr. Abbas in April limits his authority and gives the PLO executive committee the right of approval over negotiating steps with Israel. Mr. Arafat controls the PLO executive panel, and Mr. Abbas is his deputy.

Israel and the United States want to sideline Mr. Arafat, saying he is tainted by terrorism and has led his Palestinian Authority into corruption and inefficiency.

Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas met May 17, the first Israeli-Palestinian leadership meeting since violence erupted in September 2000. No agreements were reached at the summit.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said yesterday that results could be expected from the three-way summit between President Bush, Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas. Mr. Bush “would not bother coming all the way out here to leave without a decision of some kind,” Mr. Shalom told Israeli TV.

Mr. Rabbo said he hoped the trilateral summit would result in implementation of the peace plan.

Jordan’s information minister said Mr. Bush would hold the three-way summit as well as a separate meeting with leaders from Egypt and Jordan. But the White House said no plan has been finalized.

The road map is a three-stage, U.S.-backed plan that calls for creating a Palestinian state in 2005. The first stage calls for a halt to Palestinian-Israeli violence. Israel conditionally accepted the plan on Sunday, a month after the Palestinians approved the formula and insisted it be implemented unchanged.

Violence, meanwhile, continued.

In the West Bank, Israeli troops killed a 16-year-old who, they said, was throwing a firebomb. Two children, ages 7 and 9, were critically wounded in clashes with the military, Palestinian hospital officials said.

Five Palestinian children, a Palestinian woman and a police officer were injured yesterday after explosives were accidentally detonated in the West Bank city of Hebron. The children found the explosives under a tree.

David R. Sands contributed to this report from Washington.

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