JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised yesterday to pull back Israeli tanks and end further military incursions into Palestinian-controlled cities if Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat orders a cease-fire that holds for 48 hours.
If there are two days of quiet, Sharon told members of Israel's parliament, he will allow Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to meet with Arafat to discuss putting into effect a failed truce package negotiated by the United States three months ago.
The Peres-Arafat meeting had been scheduled for yesterday at a Gaza Strip checkpoint. Sharon called it off, saying it would be inappropriate to hold high-level talks that might legitimize Arafat as "a good guy" while "he is actively using terrorism at its fullest possible strength."
Arafat, speaking to reporters yesterday in the Gaza Strip, said the Palestinians "are ready for the political dialogue at any time." He did not say whether he would order a halt to violence.
"How many times have we declared a cease-fire?" Arafat said. "We are committed to a cease- fire. ... But unfortunately, as [Israelis] say these words, they continue with their aerial raids."
Sharon made his speech hours after Israeli tanks rolled into Ramallah, north of Jerusalem in the West Bank, to retaliate for a shooting Saturday night that killed a Jerusalem man on a road near the French Hill neighborhood.
In hours of fierce fighting in Ramallah, a Palestinian security officer and an Israeli soldier were killed. Palestinian officials said Ali al-Yaseany was killed when a tank shell exploded near him. The Israeli army said Sgt. David Gordukal, 21, of Bat Yam died after being shot in a gunbattle.
The political maneuvering over the Arafat-Peres meeting took place against the backdrop of last week's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, and the naming of Saudi-born Muslim extremist Osama bin Laden as the prime suspect. The United States is courting Arab nations to join a coalition to help fight terrorism and is worried that they might balk if U.S. officials do not force Israel to ease its stepped-up military campaign against the Palestinians.
Last week, when President Bush telephoned Sharon to urge that Peres meet with Arafat, Sharon told him that "we will not pay our security as the price for forming a coalition," a government spokesman said. Earlier, Sharon had called Arafat "our bin Laden."
Israel is attempting to use the world outrage over the attacks in the United States to isolate Arafat as a terrorist. Sharon, a member of the right-wing Likud bloc, does not want to offer Arafat a spotlight in which to appear as a proponent of peace while Israeli citizens continue to be fired on.
"This 48 hours is his one chance," said Sharon's spokesman, Ranaan Gissin, urging the U.S.-led coalition to also target Arafat's Fatah, Tanzim and Force 17 groups linked to attacks on Israelis. "Is he a follower of bin Laden or is he against bin Laden? If he is truly against terrorism, then he will have to pass this test."
Sharon's cancellation of the Peres-Arafat meeting upset Peres enough that he threatened to quit the coalition government during two meetings with Sharon, several Israeli newspapers reported yesterday.
Peres has long sought a meeting with Arafat. He considers it a good opportunity to secure peace for Israel because Arafat is frightened of being lumped with other militant regimes and terrorist groups.
"Why must we become the party that refuses?" Peres told state radio yesterday, rejecting Sharon's comparison of Arafat to bin Laden. "If we meet and [Arafat] does not do anything, then all the blame will fall on him."
Also yesterday, Israel announced that it would establish in the West Bank a military zone off limits to Palestinians. The 18-mile-long "closed military area" would range from several hundred yards to about 2 miles wide along the West Bank-Israel border between Jenin and Tulkarm.
The so-called closure order, the Israeli army said in a statement, will go into effect Sept. 24 in hopes of preventing suicide bombers from crossing into Israel. "Anyone violating the closure order will be arrested and put on trial," the statement said.
The army originally planned to set up several such zones in the West Bank but ran into opposition from the government.
"This is the most dangerous thing this Israeli government is undertaking," said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian Authority Cabinet member, said. "It is to prepare for an all-out assault on the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian Authority areas."
Reuters contributed to this article.