Arafat offered trip to Arab summit in exchange for truce
JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Tuesday that Yasser Arafat will be free to travel to an Arab summit next week if the Palestinian leader agrees to a cease-fire, but hinted Arafat may not be allowed back if the violence persists while he is gone.
In another incentive for a truce, Vice President Dick Cheney said he would meet Arafat if it is achieved. It would be Arafat's highest-level contact with the Bush administration.
Both sides said a truce to halt 18 months of Palestinian-Israeli violence could be declared after a crucial meeting of security commanders set for Wednesday. Violence continued Tuesday, with an Israeli soldier and two Palestinians dying in a gunbattle and a Palestinian civilian shot to death by Israel troops.
In a statement late Tuesday, the Palestinian Cabinet said it is prepared to implement a cease-fire "according to a time table agreed on by both sides, without any delay." The statement complained that "troops are still surrounding the Palestinian territories with a tight siege and continuous aggression against the Palestinian people."
Decisive action expected
Cheney, ending a 24-hour stop in Israel, said he expected Arafat to take decisive steps to end Palestinian attacks on Israelis by week's end.
"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 with Sharon.
Arafat wants to attend a March 27-28 Arab summit in Beirut, at which Saudi Arabia is expected to present a proposal for broad Arab-Israeli peace in exchange for a return of the territories Israel occupied in 1967 -- the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.
These ideas have been welcomed by the United States and European Union, but Sharon opposes a total withdrawal from territory he considers strategically valuable.
Sharon expressed his expectations of Arafat at the summit and added an implied warning.
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."
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," he said.
The U.S. mediation effort, led by envoy Anthony Zinni, focuses on the mechanics of implementing a truce worked out last year by CIA director George Tenet. The plan has in principle been adopted by both sides, but implementation has been scuttled by violence.
Carrying out its terms would be difficult for the Palestinian Authority both logistically -- it would have to collect enormous amounts of illegal arms now in the hands of Palestinian militant groups -- and politically, in effect ending the Palestinian uprising with little to show for the people's suffering.
Cheney listed the steps he expected Arafat to take: "To speak to his own people personally about the importance of ending violence and terrorism, to issue clear instructions to his security services to enforce the cease-fire and to follow up closely these efforts to ensure implementation of the work plan."
If that occurs, Cheney said, he would be ready to meet Arafat "in the period ahead, at a site in the region to be determined."
Palestinian officials had been angered over Cheney's refusal to meet Arafat during his visit here, saying it showed bias against their side. Erekat welcomed Cheney's promise to meet with the Palestinian leader if the truce comes through.
Sharon softened a number of his positions before and during Cheney's visit -- he pulled Israeli troops out of Palestinian-run areas, he dropped his demand of seven days of absolute calm before the truce, and raised the prospect of Arafat traveling abroad.
In a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian security officials on Monday, Israel presented its timetable for implementing the Tenet plan and said it needed about a month to carry out its obligations, Palestinian security officials said. These include redeploying the army to positions held before the fighting began.
The Palestinians are to present their proposal in another meeting Wednesday, and if agreement is reached a truce could be declared after that session, according to the Palestinian officials.
In the West Bank, two Palestinian gunmen infiltrated an army training area, killing an Israeli officer and wounding three soldiers before being shot dead. Also, a Palestinian man standing outside his shop in the town of Beit Omar was killed by Israeli troops, Palestinian security officials said.
Earlier Tuesday, Israeli forces withdrew from Palestinian-controlled territory around the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Israel this month launched its biggest military operation in two decades, sending thousands of troops into Palestinian towns and refugee camps in a hunt for Palestinian militants.
The Israeli military said its troops were now out of all Palestinian-run areas, while the Palestinians said Israeli tanks still controlled some Palestinian land in Gaza.
Since fighting erupted in September 2000, 1,215 people have been killed on the Palestinian and 353 on the Israeli side.