Arab League: U.S. has adopted Israeli line on Mideast
An official of the Arab League on Thursday accused the United States had adopted Israel's position by backing its claim to keep hold of parts of the West Bank, and the refusal to grant Palestinian refugees the right of return to lands inside Israel.
"We expect the United States to play honest broker. We accused it before of being unbalanced. Now we can't even say that. The United States has adopted Israel's position," said Hesham Youssef, spokesman for the league's secretary-general.
"We are in a very difficult situation which is unprecedented... This is a fundamental milestone in the Arab-Israeli conflict," he said.
Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat declared Thursday that the Palestinian people will not retreat from their goal of achieving liberty, national sovereignty and a state with "Holy Jerusalem" as its capital.
French President Jacques Chirac, meanwhile, rejected any unilateral moves to change borders in the Middle East on Thursday.
"I have reservations about the unilateral, bilateral questioning of international law," Chirac said, adding such moves would set an "unfortunate and dangerous precedent."
Arafat's comments came at a press conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah, following an emergency meeting of the Palestinian leadership called to discuss Wednesday's Washington meeting between U.S. President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
He stressed that the Palestinians have the right to return to "their homeland" inside Israel, despite Bush's declaration Wednesday that refugees would only be able to return to a newly-created Palestinian state.
"Israeli crimes will be faced with more resistance to force Israeli occupiers and herds of settlers to leave Palestinian land," Arafat said. He cautioned that "Israel will not achieve security through occupation, arrogance and assassinating our leaders."
Ahead of the meeting, Palestinian Minister Saeb Erekat said that the PA leadership was to send urgent letters to all countries, urging them "to express openly and frankly their position concerning Sharon's plan to impose a solution on the Palestinians that is unacceptable."
Erekat said they would also contact representatives of the Quartet of peace brokers behind the road map, comprising the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, as well as the United States.
"The world should know that we reject the statements of President Bush which deprive our people of their right of return, oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders and support Sharon's plan to annex West Bank settlements built on our people's properties," he said.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia was meanwhile reportedly considering quitting his post, in reaction to Bush's comments.
Qureia accused the United States of total bias against the Palestinians in a phone call with Secretary of State Colin Powell, Qureia's office said Thursday.
Powell was told that the U.S. position was "an absolute bias against the Palestinian position, and we fully reject these unilateral measures and their consequences," Qureia's office said.
Minutes after Bush spoke, Qureia harshly criticized the U.S. president's stand. "He is the first president who has legitimized the settlements in the Palestinian territories when he said that there will be no return to the borders of 1967," he said. "We as Palestinians reject that, we cannot accept that, we reject it and we refuse it."
The political fallout from Wednesday's Washington meeting continued Thursday, with the European Union insisting there could be no unilateral change in Middle East borders.
"The European Union will not recognize any change to the pre-1967 borders other than those arrived at by agreement between the parties," Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen said in a statement on behalf of the EU presidency.
Cowen also said an international peace road map, in which the EU is a partner with the United States, stressed that any settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "must include an agreed, just, fair and realistic solution to the refugee issue."
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said late Wednesday that Israel should talk with the Palestinians before embarking on the disengagement plan.
He said unilateral action would only create more problems in the troubled region. "I think such an initiative, from my point of view, should be discussed with the Palestinians," he said.
"To impose anything, they are going to reject it. That's why there's a lot of criticism going on now [of Sharon's proposal]," said Mubarak, who met with Bush on Monday at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas.
Germany and Russia on Thursday welcomed the plan for an Israeli withdrawal, but insisted that only a solution negotiated with the Palestinians under the internationally-brokered road map would bring peace to the Middle East.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's spokesman said Sharon's plan was "an important step on the way to bringing about the two-state solution as foreseen in the road map."
But "only a solution agreed by both sides and respecting the interests of both sides ... will be able to guarantee lasting and stable peace and security in the Middle East," the spokesman, Bela Anda, said in a statement.
"That applies particularly to questions that, under the road map, are subject to final status negotiations between both sides - for example, territorial decisions and refugees' right of return," Anda said.
Schroeder will use meetings Friday with Mubarak and on Monday with Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri to press for progress in the Middle East, the statement said.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer urged the international community to seize the "new dynamic" created by the Bush-Sharon meeting to push forward the peace process.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, conditionally welcomed the Gaza initiative, but made no mention of the plan to keep Israel in the West Bank.
Lavrov told reporters an Israeli pullout from the Strip was generally in line with the road map, but called for further steps.
"In that sense, such a step may be supported if it does not remain isolated and leads to other actions to implement existing UN Security Council resolutions," Lavrov said.
Israel has informed Washington that it will implement Sharon's disengagement plan by summer 2005 in an appendix to the letter presented to the president at their Wednesday meeting.
Sharon's letter to Bush also promises to limit construction in the territories. Talks will begin shortly between Israel and the U.S. over what will constitute the "built-up areas" of the settlements, beyond which construction will be forbidden.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer will meet with Israeli security officials in the coming days to discuss these exact boundaries.
In a separate letter to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Dov Weisglass, on behalf of Sharon, will itemize all the outstanding Israeli commitments, including the evacuation of illegal outposts and releasing confiscated PA money.
Talks will also begin soon on financial aid programs for Gaza, the Negev and Galilee. Israel is seeking loan guarantees for $5 billion for those purposes. National Security Adviser Giora Eiland met Wednesday with World Bank officials to discuss Gaza development.
In his letter to Sharon, Bush said the U.S. was committed to the road map and would do "its utmost" to prevent any other political plan from being imposed on Israel.
Speaking at a press conference beside a beaming Sharon in the White House, Bush publicly stated what his letter said: "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949," meaning the Green Line.
Sharon said his disengagement plan would create "a new and better reality for the state of Israel" and emphasized it would improve the country's security and economy.
The president said working together could help build democratic Palestinian institutions, and said that Sharon's plan, which he termed as "courageous," could lead to a peaceful, democratic, viable Palestinian state. He also said it is up to responsible Palestinians, Europeans and Americans to play a role in developing such a state.
Regarding the separation fence being constructed by Israel in the West Bank, Bush said it should be a security barrier and should be temporary rather than permanent. Asked by a reporter if American policy in the Middle East is tilted toward Israel, Bush responded by saying the U.S. was "tilted toward peace."
The meeting has apparently helped Sharon boost domestic support for his disengagement plan ahead of a May 2 Likud referendum on the initiative.
A poll published by Army Radio on Thursday found that 57 percent of Likud voters said they would support the plan, while just 25 percent opposed it.
The prime minister met Secretary of State Colin Powell for breakfast Thursday, before embarking on his return trip to Israel. They made no statements afterward the meeting.