By Associated Press
Ahmed Qureia lashes out at President Bush's insistence that the Palestinian leader can't help the peace process.
JERUSALEM - The incoming Palestinian prime minister issued his strongest defense of Yasser Arafat, saying Friday the United States should treat him as a real partner and condemning President Bush's refusal to deal with the Palestinian leader as only hurting peace efforts.
Prime Minister-designate Ahmed Qureia's criticism of U.S. policy signaled he will not challenge Arafat. Israel and the United States had initially pressed for the creation of the post of prime minister in hopes of sidelining Arafat, who they say is tainted by terror.
The U.N. General Assembly approved a resolution Friday demanding that Israel halt threats to expel Arafat. Palestinian diplomats won support from the European Union and many African states after adding a condemnation of Palestinian suicide bombings to the resolution.
In new violence, Israeli troops blew up the homes of two Hamas suicide bombers and stepped up searches for fugitives in the West Bank. Four soldiers and three Palestinians, including a 12-year-old boy and a 4-year-old girl, were wounded in gunbattles.
Israel says it will keep up military strikes because Palestinian security forces have failed to dismantle violent groups, as required by the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.
While the United States has urged the Palestinians to swiftly deal with militants, it also has criticized proposals for an Israeli security barrier that would cut deep into West Bank lands the Palestinians want for a future state.
On Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon discussed the barrier's route with Cabinet ministers from his Likud party. They put off a decision until Israeli envoys hear U.S. objections during a visit to Washington next week, a senior Israeli official told the Associated Press.
Arafat "has failed as a leader," Bush said Thursday.
Bush accused Arafat of forcing out Mahmoud Abbas, the first Palestinian prime minister, who resigned Sept. 6, after months of wrangling with Arafat.
Reacting to Bush, Qureia said Friday: "This is a regrettable statement that does not serve the peace process.
"Arafat is the elected leader of the Palestinian people and represents the will of these people," Qureia said. "Thus we want President Bush and the American administration to respect the will of the Palestinian people. President Arafat is a real partner."
Arafat also responded Friday.
"You have to know we are the authority of the Palestinians that has been recognized by all the Palestinians," he told ABC News. Bush "has to remember that President Clinton was dealing with me, his father was dealing with me. And he was in the beginning with me."
Arafat's standing was given a considerable boost by Israel's threat last week to "remove" him at an unspecified time, posing the possibility he might be expelled or killed.
In the U.N. General Assembly, 133 member states voted for the resolution demanding that Israel halt threats to expel Arafat. Four voted against and 15 abstained. The resolution deplores Israel's "extrajudicial killings" of terrorists, saying they violate international law.
Opposed were Israel, the United States, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte called the resolution imbalanced for not condemning specific Palestinian terrorist groups. The United States vetoed a similar resolution at the Security Council this week for the same reasons.
Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a senior aide to Arafat, called the vote "a positive position and a real slap to Israel and to its supporters."