U.S. President George W. Bush said yesterday that Israel is keeping its promise to withdraw troops from Palestinian cities as he turned up the pressure on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to crack down on terrorism.
"Mr. Arafat did condemn terrorism, and now we will hold him to account" and demand that he take action against terrorists, Bush said. The president's comments came during a meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell, who returned hours earlier from his mission to the region. Joined by Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, the president shrugged off criticism that Powell's mission had failed.
"One trip by the secretary of state will not prevent that from happening, but one trip by the secretary of state laid out the framework and path to achieve peace... We will continue to do that," Bush said.
The president praised Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as "a man of peace. I'm confident he wants Israel to be able to exist at peace with its neighbor." Bush said he was satisfied that Sharon was acting in good faith. "He gave me a timetable, and he met the timetable."
Bush also said he understood why Israel was keeping troops in Bethlehem and in Ramallah, where the suspects in last year's assassination of former tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi are holed up in the Ramallah compound with Arafat. "These people are accused of killing a cabinet official of the Israel government. I can understand why the prime minister wants them brought to justice," he said. "They should be brought to justice if they killed a man in cold blood."
He praised Powell for laying out a vision of hope for a region that was at a "boiling point" two weeks ago. Powell reiterated his concept for a framework of action that would include full Israeli withdrawal from the areas it occupied during Operation Defensive Shield, refurbishment of the Palestinian security services and their crackdown on terrorists and a political horizon leading to the two-state solution Bush outlined in the UN last year, as well as international economic and humanitarian aid to the Palestinians.
Top U.S. officials said yesterday that a steady stream of visits from U.S. officials will take place in the region to prod the parties toward political and security negotiations.
Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs William Burns was in Jerusalem last night to continue talks with the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams. Burns wants to visit the Jenin refugee camp for a first-hand assessment of the damage done during the battle there. Asked by reporters about whether he believed a massacre took place in Jenin, Bush said yesterday he was awaiting the facts.
Burns and his assistant, peace process veteran Aaron Miller, are to meet today with Uri Shani, the prime minster's chief of staff, Danny Ayalon, the prime minister's political advisor, and Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinski, the prime minister's military liaison officer, to discuss the next steps the United States has planned for the region.
Next week, CIA director George Tenet arrives to meet with both sides and to assess Palestinian capabilities for cracking down on the terror networks, as called for in his working plan from last year.
Sharon told the cabinet - the ministerial heads of the various factions forming the coalition - that Israel insists on the work plan formulated by U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni, also due back at the end of the coming week after attending a family celebration in the United States. The Palestinians say the Zinni plan is a distortion of the original Tenet plan.
Sharon said the IDF would complete the withdrawal from Nablus, Jenin and parts of Ramallah by Sunday morning, and would release some reservists called up.
But the sieges on Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity and Ramallah's Palestinian Authority compound will remain in place until there is a resolution of both conflicts. In the Ramallah siege, Israel is demanding the Palestinians hand over Ze'evi's assassins, and Fuwad Shubeiki, whom the Palestinians said were being held in jail inside the compound when the siege began and have promised will remain jailed. In Bethlehem, some 200 armed Palestinians are inside the Church of the Nativity along with some 50 priests and nuns. Israel wants to make sure none of the armed men are wanted terrorist suspects before it allows the gunmen to leave, unarmed.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who was due in Washington today, told his Polish counterpart yesterday that the Palestinians retracted a compromise that had been worked out regarding the church siege.
Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh, meanwhile, met with ambassadors from the European Union, saying the regional peace conference now being touted would spell the end of the coalition government because "the moment of truth will arrive" with the presentation of a political plan. "If Labor's political plan is not acceptable to the Likud, it will break apart the government," Sneh said. He presented his own view for an Israeli withdrawal from almost all of the West Bank, except for 5 percent, which would be made up in a transfer of sovereignty to Palestine from an equivalent portion of land in Israel. Lately, Sneh has proposed that the land to be handed over to the Palestinians include Arab villages from the Triangle area. When asked by the Finnish ambassador if Israel would accept an international inquiry into the events at the Jenin refugee campo, Sneh shot back, "did you demand an inquiry into the terror attack on the Haifa restaurant or the Pesach massacre in Netanya?"
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