Israeli official hints at West Bank pullback

Conciliatory gesture made as Sharon visits Bush


JERUSALEM - Israel's defense minister suggested yesterday that the army might withdraw from a second West Bank city by the weekend, sounding a conciliatory note as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrived in Washington to meet with President Bush.

The Bush administration, seeking support for a possible war on Iraq, has recently accused Israel of not keeping its promises to ease the plight of Palestinians. It has also questioned recent Israeli military actions, particularly in the Gaza Strip, implying that they have endangered civilians.

Bush's meeting with Sharon is expected to focus on Iraq rather than Israeli-Palestinian relations, but advisers to Sharon said he is anxious to fend off any hint that Bush might curry Arab support for or acquiescence in that venture by promising Israeli concessions here.

Sharon temporarily left behind a tense, troubled country. The smell of burning garbage filled the air here yesterday, and waste piled up on street corners and around overflowing trash cans as striking municipal workers reduced such city services as sanitation.

In a speech Monday in which he called on Palestinians to replace their leadership, Sharon also demanded that the strikers and others "make painful compromises" for "our very existence and livelihood."

That call has gone unheeded as the prime minister prepares for a difficult political fight to win passage of a budget meant to relieve what he called "this economic crisis."

Four Israelis were slightly wounded yesterday by broken glass after gunfire on a bus in northern Israel near the boundary with the West Bank. Police said they were not certain whether Palestinians opened fire on the bus, or a gun was accidentally discharged.

"We know that it was a bullet," Gil Kleiman, a police spokesman, said. "Where it came from we don't know."

The defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, said during a visit to France that Israel is in "intensive talks on widening the area" of Israeli withdrawal in the southern West Bank. He mentioned the city of Hebron, saying he hoped the army would leave by the end of the week "if the conditions in the field will allow it."

After seizing control of seven of the eight Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank at midsummer, after a devastating suicide attack on a bus here, Israel withdrew from Bethlehem two months ago after gaining assurances from Palestinian officials that the city would remain quiet.

Bethlehem was supposed to be a test case, but though the city has remained relatively calm, Israel has made no further withdrawals, noting violence elsewhere in the West Bank.

Yesterday, Israeli police detained the chief Islamic cleric here, Ikrema Sabri, the mufti of Jerusalem. The police said he was held for about three hours for questioning about a report in an Arab newspaper that he called suicide bombing a form of self-defense.

Leaving the police station yesterday afternoon, Sabri, who was appointed to his post by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, told reporters the report was inaccurate.

"I clarified my positions," he said.

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