Cheney coaxes Arafat effort

U.S. offers meeting if Palestinian leader acts to end violence

`Vision can be achieved'

Sharon would allow Arafat to attend Arab summit in Lebanon

March 20, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Trying to coax Israel and the Palestinians toward a cease-fire agreement, Vice President Dick Cheney said yesterday that he would meet with Yasser Arafat if the Palestinian leader took steps to end attacks against Israel.

Cheney said he could meet Arafat in the Middle East as early as next week, but made it clear that the Palestinian leader must immediately restore calm. It will be up to U.S. peace envoy Anthony C. Zinni to decide whether Arafat has met the vice president's conditions for the meeting.

"I cannot emphasize enough how important it will be this week for Chairman Arafat to take the steps to get the cease-fire started," Cheney said at a news conference.

He demanded that Arafat "speak to his own people, personally, about the importance of ending violence and terrorism."

Palestinian officials reacted cautiously to Cheney's statements, saying that the conditional invitation for a meeting was a "positive step ahead" for reaching a truce with Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said at a news conference with Cheney that if a cease-fire were reached, he would allow Arafat to travel to an Arab summit scheduled to take place next week in Beirut, Lebanon. But he seemed to leave open a possibility that Arafat would not be allowed to return to the West Bank or Gaza Strip if he gave an inflammatory speech or if terror attacks resumed in his absence.

"We are expecting to hear a speech that will address the importance of peace and stability in the region," Sharon said.

Zinni is working to persuade Israel and the Palestinians to carry out the Tenet plan, an agreement negotiated last summer by CIA Director George J. Tenet to move both sides toward a permanent peace agreement.

The plan calls for security cooperation, beginning with a crackdown by Palestinians on militant groups and an end to incitements to violence. Israel would be required to cease attacks against Palestinian facilities and incursions into Palestinian-controlled areas.

"I told the vice president that the implementation of the Tenet agreement will enable Mr. Arafat to go outside the borders of the territories, and this has been decided by the Cabinet," Sharon said. "We would expect that he will speak on the importance of peace and regional stability."

Asked whether Arafat would be allowed to return to the Palestinian territories after the summit, Sharon said: "If it turns out that he didn't act in that way, the Cabinet will meet and will have to make a decision. I wouldn't rule out any possibilities."

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat denounced the comments, saying: "Sharon cannot put an obstacle on the movement of Arafat and cannot dictate to us what we should say or not say."

Cheney made clear that he believes Israel had made conciliatory gestures and that it was up to Arafat to respond. Sharon abandoned a demand that there be seven days of complete quiet before talks resume and withdrew Israeli troops from all Palestinian territory.

"General Zinni has laid out what is required to move forward, and he has made clear that failure to fulfill the requirements of Tenet will torpedo this process," Cheney said. "The Tenet work plan requires 100 percent effort by Chairman Arafat to stop the violence and the terror, and I would expect the 100 percent effort to begin immediately."

Zinni, a retired Marine general who arrived last week, has shuttled between Sharon and Arafat and overseen meetings between Israeli and Palestinian security officials, sessions described as contentious but productive.

Hours before Cheney spoke, two Palestinian gunmen attacked an Israeli military post in the Jordan valley, killing one soldier and wounding three others before being shot dead.

But violence has dropped significantly since Zinni arrived Thursday. He has pledged to remain indefinitely, until there is a cease-fire and discussions begin that could lead to a long-term solution.

Palestinian officials say that nothing short of a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, meaning a return to Israel's pre-1967 borders, will bring a permanent peace settlement.

Palestinian officials said that a cease-fire could be in place by today.

Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said there was no indication that Arafat had ordered a halt to the violence, but that he thinks a truce is possible within 48 hours.

Cheney was optimistic that a deal can be worked out.

"President Bush has laid out a vision of peace for this region, in which two states - Israel and Palestine - would live alongside each other, within secure and recognized boundaries," Cheney said yesterday. "That vision can be achieved."

Palestinians remain concerned that the Bush administration's new interest in ending the conflict may only reflect a desire to gain Arab support for action against Iraq. They warn that a cease-fire will collapse unless it quickly leads to substantive talks on creation of an independent Palestinian state.

"I think that everybody knows that America cares only about its own interests and that they are trying to recruit support for their future strike against Iraq," said Ziad Abu Zayyad, a Palestinian legislator.

"This cease-fire they are trying to get is not for the sake of the Palestinians, it is for them. I hope that it will succeed. But if it is not linked directly to political steps, it will fail. Just a cease-fire doesn't get us anything."

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