Cheney says he may return for another peace mission

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

ANKARA, Turkey -- Vice President Dick Cheney, trying to revive Middle East peace talks, said Tuesday he would return to the region as early as next week to meet with Yasser Arafat if an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire was reached.

President Bush, briefed at the White House by Secretary of State Colin Powell on Cheney's mission and a parallel mediation attempt by Anthony Zinni, said, "We're making progress there."

At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher said Zinni "has made some progress," citing the setting up of the first three-way security meeting by Israelis, Palestinians and Americans, in several weeks.

As Israeli tanks withdrew from Bethlehem and other West Bank areas, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon conditionally agreed to lift a travel ban so Arafat could meet with Cheney and attend an upcoming Arab summit in Beirut, Lebanon.

"We want to eventually reach political negotiations which I hope, God willing, will bring us to peace," Sharon said at a news conference with Cheney in Jerusalem.

It would mean an end to Arafat's three-month confinement to the Palestinian areas by Israel.

After the news conference, Cheney left Israel after a 24-hour stay in which he met with Sharon twice but not with Arafat or other Palestinian representatives.

The vice president was finishing his 11-nation, 10-day tour of the Middle East in Turkey. He returns to Washington on Wednesday.

He also came to build a case for a tougher line on Iraq but found his trip dominated instead by the Arab-Israeli crisis.

U.S. officials hoped the promise of a special Cheney-Arafat meeting could lead to a breakthrough in the peace process, even though Cheney and Sharon put obstacles in Arafat's path.

Cheney said that Arafat would have to demonstrate -- to the satisfaction of envoy Zinni -- that he was making a "100 percent effort to stop the violence and terror," beginning at once.

Sharon said Arafat must "stop terror, violence and incitement" and abide by terms of a cease-fire plan proposed last year by CIA Director George Tenet.

That plan calls for a cessation of hostilities, for Israel to pull its troops back from Palestinian population centers and for Palestinians to rein in militants and collect their weapons.

Cheney told reporters that both Sharon and Arafat "have agreed to this approach."

At the White House, presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "The vice president has indicated directly that he will be willing to return to the region ... so the ingredients are there, and it's very important now to see what the events are on the ground."

In Turkey, Cheney met with Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit to discuss both Iraq and the peacekeeping effort in Afghanistan. Turkey is expected to take over leadership of the peacekeeping force from Britain in April, and Cheney promised the administration would propose a $228 million aid package to Congress to help with that effort, said Ecevit and U.S. officials.

Ecevit told reporters after the meeting that Cheney "has very clearly stated that there will be no military action against Iraq in the foreseeable future."

Turkey was a staging point for U.S. attacks during the Gulf War, and American planes are based at Incirlik Air Base from where they patrol a no-fly zone over northern Iraq.

Cheney said in Israel there was no decision yet on whether to attack Iraq. "Secondly, we never speculate about future prospective future operations," he added.

Leaders of all nine Arab nations he visited told Cheney that the United States should not wage war against Iraq. Bush, in his State of the Union speech two months ago, labeled Iraq, North Korea and Iran members of an "axis of evil."

In the Middle East, Cheney drew complaints from Palestinians for not meeting with Arafat during his 24-hour stay in Jerusalem. Zinni, however, has been meeting regularly with Arafat.

Scheduling a Cheney-Arafat meeting around the March 27-28 Arab summit in Beirut would enable Arafat to take in both meetings without leaving the region or being away for long.

Several U.S. officials speculated that an Arab nation in the region, perhaps Egypt, could be the location for such a meeting with Cheney.

"The meeting can take place relatively soon, if in fact that process happens, possibly as early as next week," Cheney said. "But again, there's been no specific time set yet and no specific locale, although we're going to work on that."

Palestinians have expressed concern that if Israel lets Arafat out of the country it might not allow him to return.

At the Arab summit, Saudi Arabia is to present a new peace plan under which Israel would win peace with the Arab world in exchange for a withdrawal from the lands it gained in the 1967 Mideast war.

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