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Commentary: Bush Administration's Uncompromising Stances Have the Effect of Painting Them Into a Corner on Issues Where There Is Little Room to Maneuver

All Things Considered: July 17, 2002

Bush - Middle East


President Bush today reiterated his demand for new leadership of the Palestinian Authority to replace Yasser Arafat. News analyst Daniel Schorr says this might be one of those times that the president's uncompromising position has more wiggle room than first seems apparent.


The life of a superpower chieftain is not always an easy one; occasionally requiring some fancy footwork to get out of a corner that he's painted himself into. Thus, last week, the Bush administration, faced with the condemnation of virtually all of the civilized world, used a murky compromise to back off from a threatened veto of United Nations peacekeeping in a dispute over immunity for Americans from the reach of the International Criminal Court.

This week, Secretary of State Colin Powell is engaged in intensive discussions with America's international partners on how to get started towards the goal of creating a peaceful Palestinian state. There is general agreement on restructuring security forces and civil society, but there is a hang-up over the role of Chairman Yasser Arafat. It stems from the president's June 24th speech in which he conditioned Palestinian statehood on a new and different Palestinian leadership. That has drawn a round of disapproval from European and other governments, which maintain that only the Palestinians can choose their leaders. Yesterday in New York, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov spoke of the sovereign right of the Palestinian people.

Arafat has announced elections for next January, but has not made clear whether he will run. There is a small window for some creative ambiguity about new leadership and the old leader. In the New York discussions, which will continue with Arab envoys in Washington, the idea has been raised of Arafat as a ceremonial president while the real power would be vested in an elected prime minister drawing his authority from a parliament.

Moderate Palestinians, like scholar Khalil Shikaki, argue that this would be preferable to the provisional state that President Bush has talked about. On all sides, there are initial indications of interests in the prime minister idea. A spokesman for Arafat says in an independent state there needs to be a prime minister. A spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says acceptable as long as Arafat doesn't stand in the way of a significant change.

The Bush administration has not yet taken a formal stand on the idea of kicking Arafat upstairs, but Secretary Powell, pressed by Ted Koppel on ABC's "Nightline," said that `It is a formula that I would be more than willing to consider.' That sounds like creative ambiguity at work. This is Daniel Schorr.

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