Recently released documents from the British government archive show that in 2001 the then US President George W Bush instructed the CIA to search for a possible successor to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat after the escalation of the Second ("Aqsa") Intifada, the BBC has reported.
According to the documents, the instructions came after the failure of the 2000 Camp David negotiations between Arafat and the then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Moreover, they show that Bush expected that Ariel Sharon, who succeeded Barak as prime minister, would use the Gaza Strip in order to sow division among the Palestinians.
The documents deal with the discussions and contacts between Britain and the United States a few months after Bush entered the White House in January 2001. His administration was dominated by neoconservatives.
The Second Intifada broke out after Sharon stormed into Al-Aqsa Mosque escorted by hundreds of security personnel at the end of September 2000. By early in the following year it was at its height.
The Bush administration called on Arafat to stop the intifada as a prelude to starting security negotiations with Israel. The US president vetoed a draft resolution in the UN Security Council which proposed sending a UN observer force to protect Palestinian civilians from Israeli forces in the occupied territories.
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Telephone calls between Bush and the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair focused on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories. Blair expressed his "concern" for Arafat, according to the record of the calls written by Blair's foreign affairs adviser, John Sawers.
"Arafat," said Blair, "had reached the limits of what he can do constructively and he is only working to maintain his position." He added that the Palestinian leader "no longer has anything to offer" having made all of the possible concessions that he could.
Bush endorsed what Blair had said, then described Arafat as "weak and useless". He revealed that he had asked the CIA to search for possible successors to the Palestinian leader but said that the agency "researched the Palestinian scene thoroughly and concluded that there is no successor available."
Arafat died in France on 11 November 2004 after a cerebral haemorrhage caused by a toxic substance. Traces of polonium were found on his clothes and body. Palestinians and Arabs still accuse Israel of assassinating him.
The British documents do not refer to Blair's position on Bush's plan to replace Arafat. However, the general assessment in Whitehall at the time was that Washington supported Israel's actions in dealing with the intifada, including targeting members of Arafat's inner security circle.
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Twenty-four hours before Blair and Bush spoke on the phone, Sawers wrote a report in which he said, "The Bush administration took hard positions on the Middle East peace process." The adviser added that Bush's comments the night before, in which he "demanded that Arafat stop the violence, effectively gave his blessing to Israel's strikes on Arafat's bodyguards."
At the time, Israel continued to carry out a military operation targeting Arafat's bodyguards, and killed one of them in a helicopter strike, under the pretext of that he had participated in attacks on Israeli targets.
Bush's search for a replacement for Arafat was apparently contrary to the position of US Secretary of State Colin Powell. During his meeting with Blair in Washington five weeks earlier, in the presence of Bush, Powell expressed his fear that, "If the Palestinian Authority collapses, we will lose Arafat." Bush then described Arafat as "a good trader," but added that he was "not sure he can make a deal" with Israel.
Powell insisted that violence had to be controlled before the US could participate actively in solving the problem. "I will tell the regional parties that the United States will engage forcefully, but realistically." Only when the parties were willing to engage, he added, could the United States play an active role.
US Vice President Dick Cheney expressed a similar position. He told Blair that the Bush administration "will not rush the peace process in the Middle East" until "Sharon decides what to do" after the formation of the new Israeli government. Cheney expected Sharon to withdraw the offer made by his predecessor Barak in the Camp David negotiations with Arafat, and said that "this would not be acceptable to Arafat." Cheney also claimed that Gulf leaders were upset with Arafat's "negotiation on behalf of the Arabs on Jerusalem."
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