- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 20, 2003

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has been criticized internationally for seeking Yasser Arafat’s removal from power, yesterday said the Palestinian leader did not enjoy immunity.

“I think that Arafat does not have any immunity from a moral point of view,” said Mr. Olmert, speaking at a conference organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “If he’s responsible for terror, why should he have immunity?

“Do we have to wait for more Israelis to be killed, brutally murdered in our cities, more fathers and daughters butchered … until we point the finger at the one person who can stop it?” he asked.

The U.N. General Assembly on Friday approved a nonbinding resolution urging Israel not to remove Mr. Arafat. The vote came three days after the United States vetoed a similar resolution in the U.N. Security Council.

Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr, speaking at the same conference in Washington, said Israel had no right to unilaterally remove an elected Palestinian from power.

“It’s up to Israel to stop to think that it’s up to them to decide” who will lead the Palestinians, Mr. Amr said. “Palestinians will handle their own matters their own way without any interference from Israel.”

The overwhelming vote in the U.N. General Assembly on Friday — 133 nations endorsed the measure — came as the incoming Palestinian prime minister defended Mr. Arafat, saying he is key to peace efforts and the United States should treat him as a real partner.

Prime Minister-designate Ahmed Qureia’s criticism of U.S. policy was the strongest sign yet that he does not plan to challenge Mr. Arafat, whom Israel and the United States tried to circumvent by pressing for the creation of the post of prime minister.

Instead, Mr. Arafat appears to have maintained a central role, handpicking Mr. Qureia after the resignation of the first prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, and moving to shape a Cabinet of loyalists from his Fatah party.

Mr. Arafat’s popularity soared after Israel’s decision on Sept. 11 to “remove” him at an unspecified time. Israeli officials have suggested he may be exiled, killed or simply isolated at his shattered compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Meanwhile, an audit of the Palestinian Authority revealed that Mr. Arafat diverted $900 million in public funds to a special bank account he controlled, an International Monetary Fund official said.

Most of the cash, which came from revenues in the budget, went into some 69 commercial activities located in Palestinian areas and abroad, said Karim Nashashibi, IMF resident representative in the West Bank and Gaza.

Mr. Nashashibi made the disclosure in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where finance ministers from the eight leading industrial countries were meeting.

U.S. and European governments have complained for years that the Palestinian financial structure is not transparent and does not allow donors to trace their money to projects that benefit the people.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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