JERUSALEM -- Israel defied the United States by refusing to pull its troops out of six Palestinian towns Tuesday, but President Bush later appeared to defuse the confrontation in urging the Jewish state to do it "as quickly as possible."
Only hours earlier, the State Department demanded that the Israelis leave the towns without delay. The presence of the Israeli Defense Force "contributes to an escalation in violence, and it should be withdrawn immediately," spokesman Richard Boucher said.
The diplomatic dispute with Washington was the most serious since Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister eight months ago.
But Bush appeared to ease the tensions during a meeting with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres of Israel. "I did express our concern about troops in Palestinian territory and I would hope the Israelis would move their troops as quickly as possible," Bush said of the talks.
A revenge killing
Israel sent its army into the West Bank towns after the assassination last Wednesday of ultranationalist Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi. The killing was claimed by the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian as vengeance for Israel's Aug. 27 killing of its leader.
Israel moved into Jenin Thursday then into Bethlehem and Beit Jalla on Friday, and finally Tulkarem, Kalkiliya and Ramallah on Saturday.
Near Tulkarem, two Palestinians were killed Tuesday by Israeli gunfire, Palestinians said. The Israeli military said its soldiers returned Palestinian fire there.
Israeli officials said that they would not pull out of the towns until Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat turns over Zeevi's assassins and stamps out rogue military groups. But Israel TV reported Tuesday that some troops might be pulled back as a gesture to the United States.
In the last eight months, Israel occasionally has sent its military into West Bank and Gaza areas that were handed over to Palestinian rule in interim peace deals. In all cases, troops pulled out within days. The current thrust is the largest. On Monday, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker called for an end to the incursions.
In Washington, Bush also called on Arafat to arrest the assassins of Zeevi "and others who would harm Israeli civilians." He called the assassination "unacceptable behavior."