Arafat bows out of Arab summit in Beirut

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

JERUSALEM -- Yasser Arafat decided Tuesday not to attend a key Arab summit after Israel brushed aside appeals by the United States and threatened to prevent the Palestinian leader from returning home if violence flared during his absence. Arafat's absence could undermine Arab support for a Saudi peace plan being presented in Beirut.

Despite calls by the United States that he let Arafat go to the summit, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said "conditions are not ripe" to do so. He insisted the Palestinian leader call a cease-fire first and that Washington back any Israeli decision to bar Arafat from returning home if there is violence during his absence.

State Department spokes-man Richard Boucher insisted Israel grant a "round trip" for Arafat to and from the summit, which opens in the Lebanese capital today.

Nevertheless, Arafat will address the Arab gathering. Palestinian Cabinet Secretary Ahmed Abdel Rahman said the Palestinian leader would speak to the summit via satellite Wednesday from his Ramallah headquarters.

Two observers killed

Underscoring the incendiary situation on the ground, two observers from an international force in the West Bank were shot and killed. The Israeli military said Palestinians opened fire on their car on a road used mostly by Jewish settlers north of Hebron, where the force is stationed.

The two observers -- from Turkey and Switzerland -- were the first members of the force to be killed. The observers were sent in after an Israeli settler massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers at a holy site in 1994.

U.S. mediator Anthony Zinni made some progress in his efforts to broker a cease-fire deal. Israel grudgingly accepted new compromise proposals, while the Palestinians expressed some reservations.

Still, Sharon said Arafat must "in his own voice, to his people" declare a halt to violence before being allowed to leave the West Bank town of Ramallah, where the Palestinian leader has been trapped by Israeli troops for months.

Then, in a new condition, Sharon said if the United States told Israel it "can refuse to allow him to return if there are terror attacks, it will be easier for me to allow him to leave."

Several hours later, the Palestinian Cabinet announced Arafat's decision to stay home, saying Arafat "won't be blackmailed."

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also decided not to attend after his government accused Israel of "playing games" and imposing "unacceptable conditions" on Arafat's travel.

That left the gathering without two key voices that support the Saudi plan, which calls for Israel to pull out of all the territories it captured in 1967 in exchange for an end to the Israel-Arab conflict.

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