WASHINGTON — President Bush says he hopes Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s death will clear the way for successful Mideast peace negotiations with new Palestinian leaders.
“The death of Yasser Arafat is a significant moment in Palestinian history,” Bush said Wednesday after Arafat’s death in a Paris hospital.
“We express our condolences to the Palestinian people. For the Palestinian people, we hope that the future will bring peace and the fulfillment of their aspirations for an independent, democratic Palestine that is at peace with its neighbors.”
Secretary of State Colin Powell paid tribute to Arafat as “a significant figure in the history of the region and the world, and, we know, in the eyes of the Palestinian people.”
He said in a statement the United States would do all that it can to further Palestinian statehood. Powell conveyed his condolences to Arafat’s family and to the Palestinian people.
The State Department, meanwhile, issued a warning to Americans in the Middle East and North Africa that Arafat’s death “has the potential to produce demonstrations and unrest throughout the region.”
The statement urged Americans to “maintain a high level of vigilance.”
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said the Palestinians now had an opportunity to elect new leaders to be peace partners with Israel and the United States and to fight terror.
Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., senior Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, said in a separate statement that Arafat had advanced the Palestinians’ “legitimate aspirations for an independent state” but missed key opportunities to reach that goal.
The first U.S. president to explicitly endorse establishment of a Palestinian state on land now held by Israel, Bush renewed that pledge immediately after his re-election last week.
Arafat shunned by Bush
Bush shunned Arafat from the outset of his administration, refusing to invite him to the White House.
He sent Powell to talk to Arafat on the West Bank, but those contacts dwindled and eventually were cut off when the Bush administration concluded Arafat was inept and had not done enough to stop attacks on Israel.
In June 2002, Bush urged the Palestinians to replace Arafat with leaders “not compromised by terror.”
Plans are being made for an Arafat funeral in Cairo and burial in Ramallah, on the West Bank, where Arafat made his headquarters.
William Burns, an assistant secretary of state, will represent the United States at the funeral in Cairo, administration and Palestinian officials said Thursday.
Burns is the top State Department official for Mideast issues and has been in the Persian Gulf for talks with government leaders there.
In the statement issued after Arafat’s death, Bush said, “During the period of transition that is ahead, we urge all in the region and throughout the world to join in helping make progress toward ... the ultimate goal of peace.
'Opening for peace'
In remarks made earlier Wednesday in anticipation of Arafat’s death, Bush said:
“There will be an opening for peace when leadership of the Palestinian people steps forward and says, ‘Help us build a democratic society.’
“And when that happens — and I believe it’s going to happen because I believe all people desire to live in freedom — the United States of America will be more than willing to help build the institutions necessary for a free society to emerge so that the Palestinians can have their own state.”
He spoke after a White House meeting with Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
After his own meeting with the former Dutch foreign minister, Powell stressed that Mideast peace prospects rest heavily on whether a new PLO leadership makes clear it will fight terrorism and “will not in any way give any kind of support to terrorist activities.”
Also, Powell said, the new leaders must be able to “mobilize the Palestinian people to bring them together to the realization that terrorism is not helping them achieve their desire for a state of their own, a desire that all of us share.”
“If that kind of leadership emerges,” Powell said, “then we stand ready to work with them.”
Gearing up for new Palestinian leadership, the United States has conveyed its strong support for elections within 60 days of Arafat’s death.
The elections, which are called for under Palestinian law, are viewed by Washington as a way of ensuring a legitimate transfer of authority to new leaders with the hope they would take charge of maintaining order and nurturing a nascent Palestinian government.
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