Democrats meet Abbas, Sharon on furthering peace process

Wednesday, August 6, 2003

JERUSALEM -- A leading U.S. congressman on Tuesday accused Yasser Arafat of hampering peace efforts and told the new Palestinian prime minister he must take responsibility and strike a deal with Israel.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who is leading 29 House Democrats in a weeklong tour of Israel to discuss the Mideast peace process, made his comments after separate meetings with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Hoyer told Sharon that Israel is "the world's most courageous democracy," adding, "We are together in the struggle against terrorism."

The congressman said few of the Israeli leaders he talked to expressed confidence that Abbas, who was appointed by Arafat in April under U.S. pressure, had the power to act without Arafat's approval.

"Nobody believes that Arafat is pursuing peace positively at this point," Hoyer said. "And that's the problem."

The congressional delegation later met Abbas at the Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Hoyer said he told Abbas at their meeting that Arafat had hampered peace efforts, and "the world was now looking for him to be a partner for peace." He said he told Abbas he must dismantle Palestinian terror groups, a step Abbas has refused to take, fearing a civil war.

The United States and Israel have rejected Arafat as a peace partner, believing he is tainted by terrorism and corruption. For more than a year and a half, Arafat has been stuck at his West Bank headquarters, mostly destroyed by the Israel army in an attempt to isolate the leader.

The two main violent Islamic groups declared a three-month cease-fire on June 29. Arafat's Fatah movement declared a six-month halt to attacks.

Violence has decreased sharply. Abbas is seeking to disarm the groups through negotiations. Israeli officials demand action to disarm them, saying the truce is only giving militants time to rebuild.

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