Diplomatic Deep Freeze

GENERIC George W. Bush, Yasser Arafat, Flag of Palestine
In his latest Diplomatic Dispatch, CBS News State Dept. Reporter Charles Wolfson examines the daunting task the U.S. faces in replacing Yasser Arafat and reforming the Palestinian Authority.
If you've ever wondered what it's like to be put in the diplomatic deep freeze, you could go ask Yasser Arafat how it feels. Since President Bush's speech last week, U.S. officials have avoided him like the plague.

There have been no phone calls from Secretary of State Colin Powell and no contact with the consul general in Jerusalem, Ron Schlicher, the American diplomat whose job it is to stay in touch with the Palestinian leadership.

And that's the problem with the president's speech.

Mr. Bush decided he not only did not like Arafat - that was no secret. He also decided he didn't trust him. Moreover, the president of the United States decided to publicly share his views with the rest of the world, thus leaving open to question his administration's ability to act as a mediator between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mr. Bush has spoken to Arafat only twice by telephone and has refused to invite him to the White House, a place the Palestinian leader frequented more often than any other foreign leader during the Clinton years.

Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman, exercising his traditional diplomatic restraint, is reluctant to call Arafat a "liar." But Boucher, speaking of several face-to-face meetings Arafat and Powell have had, did say " Secretary Powell's the one to whom he's made these promises he didn't keep. He (Arafat) sat across from Powell and said he'd do these things… promised he'd do them and then never did."

Powell himself, appearing on CBS News' Face the Nation, spoke about a more sensitive point when asked if Arafat knowingly financed Palestinian suicide bombings against Israelis.

"There is evidence that there was knowledge of this kind of activity and there wasn't sufficient action taken to stop it," Powell said.

So Mr. Bush and his national security team have cut Arafat loose and very publicly advised the Palestinian people "…they ought to take a look at the leadership that brought them to such a pass, and the realization that they are not going to be able to move forward toward a state with this kind of leadership unless it changes," as Powell put it.

Okay, that's all well and good but Mr. Bush, Powell and other administration policymakers now have to figure out how to get from here to there, from Arafat's leadership ( the only leader the Palestinians have known) to someone else's.

There's also a need to transform the current level of terrorist bombings to relative peace and calm, enough so negotiations could resume with the Israelis. On top of that, there has to be a shift the corrupt system of the Palestinian Authority's rule to an administration guided by reform, openness and transparency, as demanded by Washington. The Palestinians certainly have never had such a system, nor is it a common sight anywhere in the Arab world.

To start moving in a positive direction, Powell dispatched his Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, Ambassador Bill Burns, to London and Paris to meet with officials from Russia, the UN and the European Union on the steps to take to get the Palestinians to implement their newly announced programs of reform.

Powell himself will probably follow with a meeting of the so-called Quartet at the ministerial level and he will have to meet as well with ministers from the moderate Arab states the U.S. is counting on - Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco - to pressure Arafat to step aside. These regimes' enthusiasm for Mr. Bush's demand that Arafat (who, after all, was democratically elected by the Palestinian people) be diplomatically muscled out of power is lukewarm.

So the search is on. Diplomats meeting and marking time as they await a Palestinian to emerge as a challenger/successor to Arafat, the man who almost certainly will be remembered by future generations of Palestinians as the father of his country. But if the Bush administration has anything to do with it, Arafat will not be Palestine's first prime minister.