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US policy in Mideast is faulted

WASHINGTON -- The United States has failed to show concern for the plight of Palestinians, causing great damage to the US image in the Middle East, Arab-Americans told Secretary of State Colin Powell yesterday.

''We are finding increasingly there is a difficult environment for America in the Middle East," said James Zogby, head of the Arab-American Institute, speaking to reporters after the meeting with Powell.

He was joined at the meeting by several other Arab-American leaders, including Mary Rose Oakar, a former Ohio Democratic congresswoman who is head of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

''We need to have the administration show a balance in their foreign policy," Oakar said. She added that there is no hope for peace in the Middle East as long as the United States is not perceived as an equal partner.

Zogby and Oakar declined to characterize Powell's comments during the meeting. It was his first encounter with an Arab-American delegation in two years.

The administration has consistently emphasized that progress toward peace in the Middle East must start with an end to attacks on Israelis by Palestinian militant groups.

President Bush has set forth as a goal the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005.

But Zogby said Palestinians are more interested in short-term relief from death and destruction.

Zogby said 70 percent of Gazans are unemployed. Many young people, he said, ''have not had a job ever in their lives and no prospect for a job."

He said as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon maps his plan for a withdrawal from Gaza ''settlements continue to expand in the West Bank."

The administration has endorsed the disengagement plan, noting that all 21 Jewish settlements will be vacated as well as four in the West Bank.

But Zogby dismissed the plan. ''It's an effort to move Israelis out of the Gaza arena, not to free Palestinians," he said.

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