WASHINGTON – The unrest in Gaza (search) reflects a "clash of personalities" and not a struggle over making sorely needed changes in the Palestinian leadership to promote peacemaking with Israel (search), a senior State Department official told the Senate on Tuesday.
Progress toward Palestinian statehood (search) depends on a leadership change that will strengthen Palestinian security and block suicide attacks on Israel, Deputy Assistant Secretary David M. Satterfield told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as it surveyed peace prospects.
But the committee's senior Democrat, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., faulted the Bush administration for the current impasse. He said there was no indication it had made a "sustained effort" to implement a U.S.-backed road map for peacemaking this year.
"Where is American diplomacy?" Biden asked. "It is not as if we have the luxury of time."
Satterfield, who held talks in the region earlier this month, disagreed. He said the administration was trying hard to promote a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but "the parties have the responsibility of taking steps" toward that goal.
There has been very little effort by the Palestinian Authority to address security, Satterfield said, "but we will continue to push them because as Israeli withdrawal from Gaza draws closer, it becomes increasingly vital that the Palestinian Authority be prepared to take over and maintain law and order and stability in Gaza."
Under the plan proposed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, all 7,500 Israeli Jews who live in the territory and the Israeli troops there to protect them will be withdrawn. The settlements will be turned over to the Palestinians.
Satterfield, while registering administration support for the plan, cautioned Sharon that "it can't be Gaza first and Gaza last," meaning that Israel would be pressed to withdraw on other fronts, as well. Already, Sharon, over some strong protest from Israeli militants, has offered to disband a half-dozen West Bank settlements while surrendering Gaza.
In the meantime, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia told Yasser Arafat (search) Tuesday he would stay on in his post, but only temporarily in a caretaker capacity, Cabinet ministers said.
In an angry confrontation in the Palestinian leader's office, Qureia insisted his resignation stands unless Arafat yields more power to the Cabinet, Palestinian officials said. Arafat was equally insistent that he rejected Qureia's resignation, said Saeb Erekat, a senior Cabinet minister.
Satterfield said the administration was pressing the Palestinian Authority for proof that it intends to take control over security so that suicide attacks on Israel will end.
"There are a good number of Palestinians who are sickened by the lack of leadership," he said.
But Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who had delivered an emotional account of Israeli civilians killed in coffee houses by young Palestinian bombers, told him: "When I read it back, it is just diplomatic talk."
The hearing was scheduled by Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., the panel's chairman, to "examine new dynamics" in the Middle East.
He said "we should pursue without delay every opportunity to resolve this long-standing conflict."