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Israel Puts Off an Early Decision on Letting Arafat Go to Beirut
JOEL BRINKLEY . NY Times . 26 march 2002

JERUSALEM, March 26 — Despite insistent requests from the United States, Israel put off any immediate decision early today on allowing Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, to attend an Arab summit meeting in Beirut, Lebanon.

Mr. Arafat has still not done enough to arrest militants or implement a truce, an Israeli government spokesman said, adding that the cabinet had no plans to discuss lifting a travel ban that has kept Mr. Arafat in the West Bank for more than three months.

"A decision will be made, but not right now, not this morning," the spokesman, Avi Pazner, said. There was still time for a decision to be made, he added, as the summit meeting did not get fully underway until Wednesday.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, in interview excerpts published today, said he regrets promising the United States that Israel would not harm Mr. Arafat.

Mr. Sharon said President Bush had asked him, at the start of every meeting, not to harm Mr. Arafat or expel him from Palestinian territories.

"Perhaps my agreement was correct at the beginning but at a certain stage of the clashes it became an error," he told Yedioth Ahronoth. "I should have said to them I cannot stand by this commitment."

In another interview, Mr. Sharon told the daily Maariv that he should "have gone to the Americans" and requested Mr. Arafat's removal from the area.

The full interviews will be published in both newspapers on Wednesday in special issues for Passover.

In a newspaper interview published in Beirut today, meanwhile, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt advised Mr. Arafat not to go to Beirut because Israel might not allow him back.

"We cannot predict what the Israeli government will do," Mr. Mubarak told the daily An-Nahar. "If I were in his place and they told me I could go, I would not go."

Israeli government officials said Monday that they were pessimistic about whether Mr. Arafat would be allowed to attend the Beirut meeting, even as the White House continued urging Mr. Sharon to let him go.

Early on Monday Palestinians had said Mr. Arafat was not so eager to attend under the current circumstances because Israel was placing too many conditions on his trip. Mr. Sharon has said that unless Mr. Arafat's participation in the summit meeting was constructive from Israel's point of view, he might not let Mr. Arafat return.

But on Monday night Palestinians said Mr. Arafat had come under pressure from both American and European leaders to attend. Yasir Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian information minister, insisted that Mr. Arafat would go to the Beirut meeting, if allowed.

"There must be a separation between the discussion on reaching an agreement" for a cease-fire, "and between President Arafat's trip to attend the summit," Mr. Abed Rabbo said. "His participation is 100 percent."

It would be Mr. Arafat's first trip to Beirut since 1982, when the Israeli Army, under the command of Mr. Sharon, evicted him.

In Beirut, the other Arab leaders are preparing a draft resolution for Middle East peace based on the proposal put forward by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. In general terms, it calls for Arab recognition of Israel if the Israelis leave the Palestinian areas occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

As discussion continued about Mr. Arafat's trip, Israeli and Palestinian leaders were also looking at a proposal they got Sunday night from Anthony C. Zinni, the retired Marine general and American special envoy, who has been meeting with both sides for more than a week. A meeting on Monday night was postponed so they could spend more time studying the document, which has not been made public.

Today a meeting between General Zinni and Palestinian officials ended without reaching an agreement on a truce.

"There are American ideas that we are dealing with," the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat, said. "At the same time we cannot downplay the fact that there are some problems, and we hope we will continue discussions." he told reporters.

Israeli officials said they were generally satisfied with the Zinni proposal. But Palestinians said Monday that they were disappointed. "All it does is stop the violence," said one Palestinian official involved in the negotiations. "It doesn't do anything about our interest in addressing the root cause."

When General Zinni first arrived, he said his mission was to discuss security and political issues. Now, the Palestinian involved with the negotiations said, "he says we are free to talk to the Israelis on our own about whatever we want; but without the Americans, nothing will happen."

A diplomatic official involved in the discussions said General Zinni's "mandate seems to have changed — he has backed off politics and now says he is not allowed to talk about it."

In Washington, the White House stepped up the pressure on Israel to let Mr. Arafat leave Ramallah, his headquarters city in the West Bank, where Israel has confined him since December.

"The president believes that Prime Minister Sharon and the Israeli government should give serious consideration to allowing Yasir Arafat to attend," said Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman. Vice President Dick Cheney made similar remarks on Sunday.

In Washington, senior officials said Monday that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had telephoned Mr. Sharon twice over the weekend to urge him to let Mr. Arafat go to the meeting and return. Mr. Powell also telephoned Mr. Arafat this morning to insist once more that he stop violence against Israel, officials said.

In the end, Mr. Sharon could decide to let Mr. Arafat leave, particularly if there are no suicide attacks or other major incidents today. Still, several Israeli officials said they were not optimistic. Even though Monday was relatively quiet, they cited the continuing terror attacks and Palestinian militancy.

"I think if Arafat does not implement and give an unequivocal order to stop the terror, something he has not done so far, despite his promises, he should not be allowed to go," said Meir Sheetrit, the justice minister.

Mr. Sharon made a similar statement on Sunday. On Monday afternoon, Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, the deputy defense minister, said, "It seems to me that the general direction of the cabinet will be not to allow him to go."

Late Monday, the Palestinian Authority issued a statement insisting that Mr. Arafat be allowed to go. "The participation of President Arafat in the Arab summit is an absolute right, and it cannot be subjected to exploitation and blackmail of the Israeli government," it said.

Mr. Cheney, who promised to meet with Mr. Arafat if progress were made toward a cease-fire, has already postponed the trip, though he still holds out the promise to meet if a cease-fire discussion advances.