The incoming Palestinian prime minister issued his strongest defense yet of Yasser Arafat, saying that the US should treat him as a real partner and condemning US President George W. Bush's refusal to deal with the Palestinian leader as only hurting peace efforts.
Prime Minister-designate Ahmed Qureia's criticism of US policy on Friday signaled that he will not challenge Arafat. Israel and the US 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 UN General Assembly approved a resolution on Friday demanding that Israel halt threats to expel Arafat. Palestinian diplomats won support from the EU 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 US-backed "road map" peace plan.
While the US 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 US objections during a visit to Washington next week, a senior Israeli official said.
While disagreements over the barrier have caused friction between Israel and the US, Bush also renewed his criticism of Arafat.
Arafat "has failed as a leader," Bush said on Thursday.
Bush accused Arafat of forcing out Mahmoud Abbas, the first Palestinian prime minister, who resigned on 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 on 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 [Bill] Clinton was dealing with me, his father was dealing with me. And he was in the beginning with me."
Arafat and Qureia this week proposed a comprehensive truce, but Israel says it first wants to see action against militants and doesn't believe a government linked to Arafat can crack down.
"We have, to my great sorrow, a long history of dealing with Yasser Arafat in which it has been proven beyond all doubt that he is a terror leader," Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told Israel Radio.
Israel this week resumed incursions into Palestinian areas after cutting back on such raids during a unilateral truce declared by militants that collapsed in mid-August. On Thursday, troops raided a Gaza refugee camp, killing a Hamas fugitive, and entered Jenin in the West Bank.