Jerusalem Israel and the Palestinians approved a U.S. plan Sunday that would free Yasser Arafat from his besieged West Bank headquarters and place six men wanted by Israel in a Palestinian jail under the watchful eyes of American and British guards.
Israel's Cabinet adopted President Bush's proposal in a 17-9 vote. Senior Arafat aides said the Palestinian leader also accepted the plan, which ultimately would free him from the sights of Israeli snipers crouched in the buildings around him. Arafat's compound has been under a monthlong Israeli siege and he has not been able to travel freely since December.
"We expect the siege imposed on President Arafat's office to be lifted the day after tomorrow," said Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo. He said "technical details" would be discussed Monday with British experts.
Accepting the plan, according to an Israeli Cabinet minister, was important to avoid angering the United States over another Cabinet decision: Ministers decided to bar for now a U.N. fact-finding mission from investigating allegations surrounding Israeli army actions in a West Bank refugee camp.
After seven hours of Cabinet discussion, Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin briefed reporters, saying the United Nations had reneged on agreements with Israel. The team's composition and intentions, he said, made it inevitable that Israel would be unjustly blamed.
"This awful United Nations committee is out to get us and is likely to smear Israel and to force us to do things which Israel is not prepared even to hear about, such as interrogating soldiers and officers who took part in the fighting," he said. "No country in the world would agree to such a thing."
U.N. chief Kofi Annan hoped Israel would reverse its decision at a Cabinet meeting Monday.
Bush heralded "a hopeful day" after brokering the deal to end the Ramallah siege.
Bush renewed his demand that all parties in the conflict - the Israelis, Palestinians and Arab neighbors - meet their "responsibilities" to help end the conflict, but imposed special demands on Arafat.
"Chairman Arafat should now seize this opportunity to act decisively in word and in deed against terror directed at Israeli citizens," Bush said. "He hasn't earned my respect. He must earn my respect by leading."
Bush's compromise plan would allow Arafat to travel in the Palestinian territories. Until the deal, Israel had said it would not allow Arafat out of his shell-shattered West Bank compound until it had custody of the six wanted men inside with him. Five of the six were wanted in connection with the October assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi. The sixth was accused of trafficking arms from Iran to the Palestinian territories.
Bush's proposal, according to Israeli officials, would have Israel standing by its "legitimate demand" that the six wanted men be handed over to Israel. But as long as British jailers and American representatives ensure they remain imprisoned, they apparently could stay in an isolated jail in Palestinian territory.
Asked how long they would remain jailed, Sharon spokesman Arnon Perlman responded: "I think they will remain in prison unless they are extradited to Israel."
Four of the six were convicted last week in a hastily convened, one-session Palestinian court and received sentences of one to 18 years; the two others have yet to stand trial in any court. The Palestinians had arrested the six and were holding them at a prison in Arafat's compound before the Israeli incursion. They were moved into Arafat's offices to keep them out of Israeli hands.
Abed Rabbo said the plan covers wanted men convicted by Palestinian courts.
Bush called Sharon on Saturday to propose that U.S. and British nonmilitary personnel guard the six, U.S. officials said. On Sunday night, U.S. and British consular officials met with Arafat in his Ramallah headquarters to convey the plan directly to the Palestinian leader.
Israel has kept Arafat confined to the compound since early December, aside from a few brief trips into the city of Ramallah. However, he has not been able to leave his office building since the March 29 incursion into the West Bank aimed at dismantling Palestinian militias behind deadly attacks on Israelis. Dozens of Palestinian gunmen have been killed, including some on Israel's most-wanted list, and more than 1,500 Palestinians remain in Israeli custody.
Rivlin indicated the Cabinet agreed to the U.S. proposal on Ramallah essentially because it would need American support for its dispute with the United Nations. Before formally barring the committee Sunday, Israel raised several objections to the U.N. Security Council's fact-finding mission appointed to look into Palestinian claims - and Israeli denials - of a massacre in the camp during eight days of fierce fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian gunmen.
Rivlin said Bush held three separate conversations with Sharon on Saturday about the Ramallah plan, and that saying no would leave Israel "to face the need to fight the committee when the Americans would be angry with us."
"Everybody agreed on the need to approve the request of the President of the United States in the knowledge that his help ... in the situation in which Israel finds itself now is the most important thing," Rivlin said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan did not immediately comment on the Israeli decision.
Palestinian Cabinet Secretary Ahmed Abdel Rahman accused Israel of trying to make the committee meaningless. "They claim there is nothing to hide," he said. "What then is the explanation of all these obstacles in front of the committee to prevent it from starting its mission?"
Israel originally agreed to cooperate with the fact-finding team, but it has grown increasingly critical of it. In recent days, Israel has sought delays in the team's arrival and sent representatives to U.N. headquarters in New York to try to expand the core team to include military and counterterrorism experts and to clarify its mandate.
The main sticking points had been Israel's request it decide which Israelis would testify, and that the team would not investigate Israel's military operations beyond events in the Jenin refugee camp, a militant stronghold that was scene of the fiercest battles of the campaign.
Twenty-three Israeli soldiers died in Jenin; the Palestinian death toll is uncertain, with about 48 bodies found so far.
"Israel won't sit in the place of the accused," Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said before Cabinet deliberations ended. "Israel will sit in the place of the accuser. This is an attempt to place baseless blame, almost a blood libel, on Israel."
Perlman, the spokesman, said Peres called the committee and advised them that they would be "delayed until further clarifications."
The three-member team, headed by former Finnish president Martti Athisaari, and various advisers including retired U.S. Maj. Gen. William Nash, have been waiting in Geneva, Switzerland, for an Israeli decision.
Also on Sunday:
- Negotiations to end the 27-day standoff at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity - where more than 200 Palestinians, including about 30 gunmen, other armed men and dozens of clergy were surrounded by Israeli forces - deadlocked and negotiators say it isn't clear when they will resume. Israel demands wanted men inside the compound be deported or stand trial; the Palestinians propose they be taken to the Gaza Strip.
- The Islamic militant Hamas group claimed responsibility for Saturday's rampage in the Jewish settlement of Adora in the West Bank that and killed four people, including a 5-year-old girl.
- A Palestinian was shot and killed by Israeli troops Sunday near an army checkpoint outside Hebron, Palestinian security officials and witnesses said. The army did not immediately comment.