Archive for Sunday, April 28, 2002

President welcomes Israel’s embrace of his peace overture to end Ramallah siege

April 28, 2002

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— Capping a flurry of diplomatic activity, President Bush won Israeli and Palestinian acceptance Sunday of his proposal to end the siege at Yasser Arafat's Ramallah compound.

Bush called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Saturday to propose that U.S. and British nonmilitary personnel guard six Palestinians who are wanted by Israel on assassination charges and are being kept in Arafat's offices.

In turn, Israeli troops would withdraw from Ramallah and Arafat would be allowed to leave his compound and move freely in the Palestinian areas of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Sharon's Cabinet approved the proposal on Sunday.

"The president welcomes the constructive and helpful decision by the government of Israel, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.

Arafat accepted the U.S. plan later Sunday, after meeting with American and British officials.

The Bush administration had no immediate response. Senior U.S. officials had said the proposed arrangement would be a test of Arafat's seriousness about fighting terrorism.

The White House had not disclosed Bush's call when he placed it on Saturday, a decision Fleischer said came from the president's preference for "quiet diplomacy."

"The president is more interested in action and diplomacy" and does not want to negotiate through the news media, Fleischer said.

Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke three times over the weekend with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who in turn was in touch with Palestinian leaders on the Ramallah proposal.

Powell also talked to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, European Union foreign policy and security chief Javier Solana and Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique, whose country holds the European Union presidency.

The proposal could end the standoff at the shell-shattered compound where Israeli troops have been just outside Arafat's offices since March 29, the first day of Israel's military incursion into the West Bank.

Israel has kept Arafat confined to the compound since early December, aside from a few brief trips into the city of Ramallah. He has not been able to leave his office building since March 29.

The Israelis have sought custody of five Palestinians accused of involvement in the October killing of Israel's tourism minister, and a sixth man accused of organizing a weapons shipment from Iran that Israel seized in January in the Red Sea.

The Palestinians have arrested the six and have been holding them at Arafat's compound.

The progress Sunday came three days after Bush met on his Texas ranch with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, who has been trying to broker a peace in the region.

Abdullah presented Bush with an eight-point plan that included an end to the Israeli siege at Ramallah.

One point of disagreement between the Americans and Saudis is the Saudi proposal to station an armed multinational peacekeeping force in the region. Bush supports unarmed monitors only; so does Israel.

"We believe, on the other hand, that the situation is so complex now that mere observers would not do the job," said the Saudi foreign minister said on ABC's "This Week."

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle agreed.

"I think that this may be the time to send in peacekeepers," he said. "I think an American presence may be the only way to bring about the kind of stability and send as clear a message as possible that we want to work with both sides to find a peaceful resolution."

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