Powell urges Arafat to step aside

“Mr Chairman, how long can you wait?” said Mr Powell, addressing a news conference at the Foreign Press Centre in New York.

“How long can you stay in this position where the Palestinian people are suffering, where it’s difficult to go forward toward the objectives of the road map, where it’s difficult to achieve what you say is your dream — a state for the Palestinian people?”

The United States and Israel say Arafat, the elected leader of the Palestinian authority, who has been a virtual prisoner in his Ramallah office since 2001, is an obstacle to peace and they refuse to have any dealings with him.

Mr Arafat has also faced dissension within his own ranks recently with Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei threatening to resign last month in a dispute over who controlled Palestinian security and intelligence forces.

It followed violent protests and a wave of kidnappings sparked by Mr Arafat’s nomination of a close relative to head the Palestinian security services.

Opponents accused the Palestinian Authority of corruption and cronyism.

Reporting on this week’s meeting of the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators — the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, Mr Powell said they were growing tired of waiting for Palestinian reforms.

“There is a weariness in the international community to continue providing the kind of assistance (that) the Palestinians so desperately need unless we see some sort of political reform,” he said.

The Quartet last year adopted the so-called “road map” peace plan calling for mutual steps toward an interim Palestinian state in 2005.

Ministers of the group acknowledged in a statement after this week’s meeting that no significant progress has been made in implementing the plan.

Mr Powell said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and from a few settlements in the West Bank offered an opportunity to move forward but required Palestinian action to reform security.

French Foreign Minister, Michel Barnier, pointedly opposed the US-Israeli boycott of Arafat in a speech to the UN General Assembly this week.

He said France would continue to interact with “the elected and legitimate leaders — all the leaders — of this region.”

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