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U.S. wants to see 'specific language' of Arab League document

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From Kelly Wallace
CNN White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration says it needs to review the "specific language" of the Arab League recommendation urging member nations to suspend political contacts with Israel.

But U.S. officials Saturday said no matter what the recommendation contains, severing Arab-Israeli ties would not help bring about an end to the violence in the region.

"There needs to be as much dialogue as possible," a senior administration official told CNN. The official, who had not seen the "exact language" yet, said he believes the committee recommendation may be "less" significant than it appears, adding that there have been "things very close to (this) before" from the Arab League.

In Cairo Saturday, a committee of nine Arab foreign ministers endorsed a call to suspend political contacts with Israel until "aggression" and "occupation" by the Israelis stops. It recommended that all 22 member countries follow suit.

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CNN's Ben Wedeman reports on a recommendation made by Arab League ministers (May 19)

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CNN's Mike Hanna has more on the latest act of violence in the turbulent Mideast (May 18)

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George W. Bush: We must break the cycle of violence

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U.S. officials said they are not certain if countries such as Egypt and Jordan, which have diplomatic relations with Israel, would actually implement the recommendation. But those two countries' foreign ministers were on the committee that suggested the move.

Telephone diplomacy

Secretary of State Colin Powell, who called Friday for an immediate and unconditional end to the fighting, was expected to work the phones this weekend, reaching out to the parties, "interested countries" in the region, and U.S. allies, senior administration officials told CNN.

Powell spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Friday, and sources said he came away from the call frustrated.

"The secretary has been pretty heavily engaged," said a senior administration official.

Powell, aides said, is looking at the Monday release of the so-called Mitchell Commission report as a possible "starting point" to reduce tensions.

The U.S.-sponsored commission, chaired by former Democratic Sen. George Mitchell, found both sides at fault for the renewed Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The report recommends an immediate halt to the violence, and proposes confidence rebuilding measures, such as an end to any Israeli settlement activity. That proposal is one that Israel strongly opposes.

U.S. officials said the Bush administration will offer some response to the Mitchell report Monday or Tuesday, which could include an assessment of "how it might be useful" to get started to reduce tensions and resume negotiations.

Possible Powell-Arafat meeting

Another diplomatic move "still under consideration" is a meeting between Powell and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, sometime around the secretary's upcoming trip to Africa and Europe, according to a senior State Department official. The official said at this point, scheduling a meeting depends on "whether it is possible" and "whether it is useful."

The Bush administration, unlike the United Nations and some Arab countries, did not criticize the Israeli response to Friday's suicide bombing that left five Israelis dead and killed the bomber. Israel immediately launched strikes against Palestinian targets in the West Bank and Gaza, using Israeli warplanes in those areas for the first time since the 1967 Middle East War. Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary-General, called the response "excessive" and "disproportionate."

A U.S. official told CNN the administration made a "judgment" that it was "not the right time to say that."

"We are trying to do things that are useful in trying to end the violence," said the official.

The Israeli response was "wrong because it hit the wrong people," said a senior U.S. official. "It didn't stop the people who carried out the attack," the official said, adding "the issue is how to stop the violence."

Meanwhile, Palestinians are calling on the U.S. to become more involved in the Middle East. Senior U.S. officials said the administration is "actively engaged" publicly and privately in trying to bring about an end to the fighting, but said there can be no U.S.- sponsored peace talks until the two sides decide to stop the violence.

"The president feels very much (that) in the end it is the parties that are going to have to make these hard decisions," said a senior administration official. "We will facilitate... we will give them our support, but in the end they've got to make the tough calls here."

"To do that, they have to be talking to each other," the official said.







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