Bush and Arab governments finding common ground in Mideast peacemaking

Friday, July 19th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Apart from their dispute over Yasser Arafat, the Bush administration and Arab governments are finding more common ground in their approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

President Bush says he will not let terror attacks stop him from peacemaking, an approach long favored by Arab and European governments.

The administration has previously insisted the highest priority was to try to curb terror and that peacemaking depended on ending attacks on Israel.

The foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan left the White House Thursday saying they were encouraged after a 30-minute meeting with Bush and an earlier session with Secretary of State Colin Powell.

``Every American official that we met said Israel cannot remain in these (West Bank and Gaza) territories,'' said Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia. Arab countries have long demanded recovery of the land lost in the 1967 Mideast war.

The prince said at a news conference that Bush ``volunteered he would use his influence on the Israelis.'' He said the Palestinians were considering a cease-fire to try to set the stage for an Israeli withdrawal on the West Bank.

Bitterly condemning Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the Saudi prince said he would be ``more optimistic if Sharon were not there.''

``In Sharon's view, a good Arab is a dead Arab. As Mr. Sharon sees it, the only security for Israel is to rely on arms and its relation with the United States,'' Saud said.

In a similar assessment of U.S. policy, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahemd Maher said ``many of the positions the president expressed met the positions we expressed.''

Taking note of the renewal of bloody attacks on Israeli civilians by Palestinian militants, Bush said ``We refuse to be discouraged. We are going to push for peace.''

Bush declined again to say whether there could be a role for Arafat in the process. Bush said the focus was on building institutions to help the Palestinian people.

Powell reaffirmed, meanwhile, that ``we are unable to deal with Chairman Arafat'' although ``we recognize that the Palestinian people still look to him as a leader.''

In an interview on National Public Radio's Diane Rehm program, Powell acknowledged the idea of sidestepping Arafat with an active prime minister ``has been bandied about a bit.'' But he said ``it is not a plan that we have presented.''

While attacks this week in Tel Aviv and on the West Bank that killed 13 people threaten chances of progress, Bush ``is determined to continue the political process,'' White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in a statement.

Powell said efforts to improve security, reach a settlement and improve conditions for the Palestinian people must move in parallel ways, if not completely synchronized.