Washington — Secretary of State Colin Powell said Friday that Israel promised it will not harm Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during its assault on his compound in the West Bank, but does intend to isolate him.
Powell said he spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as Sharon's cabinet was deciding how to retaliate for a series of deadly Palestinian suicide attacks against Israel.
"He advised me it would not include bringing any harm to Chairman Arafat, or killing him," Powell said.
The secretary of state condemned the recent string of attacks that have killed Israeli civilians, and called on Arafat to end them. He said the attacks have destroyed the "guarded optimism" U.S. officials had felt about resuming the peace process.
"Let's be clear about what brought it all to a halt terrorism. Terrorism that would target those who are innocent civilians," Powell said.
But he also called on Sharon to use restraint in Israeli reprisals and consider the consequences of escalating military action.
President Bush talked Friday with his top national security advisers, including Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and CIA Director George Tenet.
The decision was made to keep U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni in the Mideast region to continue to talk with both Palestinians and Israelis, Powell said. Zinni spoke to Arafat on Friday.
Powell said he was trying to reach Arafat by telephone to discuss the situation directly.
"General Zinni was quite encouraged by the progress he was making until we had the massacre the other night," Powell said, speaking of a suicide attack at the start of Passover that killed 22 Israeli civilians.
The recent terror attacks by Palestinians ended the "guarded optimism" that recent events had created, Powell said, mentioning Arab support for a Saudi peace proposal
"That's what has caused this crisis to come upon us, not the absence of a political way forward," Powell said.
As he has before, Powell made clear that the United States believes Arafat needs to do more to try to stop extremists from attacking Israel.
"We have spoken out clearly and do so again now, for Chairman Arafat to act against those responsible for these acts, and to make clear to the Palestinian people that terror and violence must halt now," Powell said at a briefing at the State Department.
Powell called on Arab and European nations to deliver that message, as well.
The United States understands Israel's need to respond to the acts of violence, Powell said. But at the same time he called on Sharon and his government, as they launch military reprisals, to "carefully consider the consequences of those actions."
Powell said the Israelis have assured him they do not intend to occupy the Arab areas in the West Bank and Gaza "for some extended period. They are going in to find the terrorists, to pick up weapons," he said.
Israel declared Arafat an enemy Friday and sent troops and tanks to break into his West Bank compound, battling his security forces and shelling the buildings. Arafat took refuge in a windowless, ground-floor room, although Israeli officials insisted they were not trying to hurt him.
Israel launched the large-scale military operation in response to the latest string of deadly Palestinian attacks, including a Passover attack that killed 22. In all, at least 27 Israeli civilians have been killed in the string of suicide attacks the last three days.
Israel's cabinet approved an extended military operation and agreed to call up thousands of reserve troops on Friday. Sharon said Israel had sought a cease-fire in good faith, "but all Israel got in return was terrorism, terrorism and more terrorism."
Before the Israeli attacks began Friday, U.S. officials had sounded somewhat hopeful about a Saudi peace proposal endorsed Thursday by the Arab League at a summit in Beirut, Lebanon.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher had said the Arab proposal held out a vision of hope. But U.S. officials also had made clear that ending the violence should remain the top priority.
Powell had called strongly on Arafat in recent days to stop the violence, while U.S. officials also urged restraint on Israel.
Friday's assault in Ramallah marked the first time Arafat's office building has been targeted, although Israel has shelled other buildings in the compound in the past 18 months of fighting. Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said there was no intention to harm Arafat, but the fire on his building made the situation volatile.
In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees burned tires to protest the Israeli attack and Arab politicians denounced it.
It is unclear how much more U.S. officials can do after the Bush administration's public peacemaking efforts of recent weeks were challenged by the Passover attack.
Nevertheless, many both inside and outside the administration insist the United States is still the only party that both sides trust and thus the only who can bring them back from the brink of violence.