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Under critical attack, Sharon defends air strikes

Arafat salutes his honor guard in Gaza upon arrival from Cairo on Saturday  

(CNN) -- In the face of domestic and international criticism of Israeli air strikes last week in the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stood by his decision and said Sunday he will do whatever it takes to protect Israelis.

Sharon ordered F-16 aircraft strikes against Palestinian targets in response to Friday's killing of five Israelis by a suicide bomber. Sources say 11 Palestinians were killed in the strikes; Palestinian sources reported three more Palestinian deaths on Saturday.

After meeting Sunday with his security cabinet, Sharon met with all his cabinet ministers, some of whom expressed anger about not being consulted before use of the U.S.-made jets.

"We are talking today about a prolonged conflict that has been forced upon us," Sharon told them. "The ability to stand up against it depends, first of all, on the group of people who sit here at this table. ... the people of Israel understand the danger, and they do have the staying power and the ability to stand up against this."

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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CNN's Ben Wedeman: Arab countries try to increase U.S. involvement

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Kofi Annan: 'Disproportionate' Israeli response

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

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At a meeting of the Arab League in Cairo, Egypt, on Saturday, foreign ministers urged in a non-binding resolution that the 22 members of the body suspend political contacts with Israel -- a more moderate step than breaking off diplomatic relations, which also was under discussion.

The individual Arab states must decide whether to follow the recommendation, but the move was welcomed by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

"All the other Arab nations and leaders are behind us in the great struggle against Israeli aggression," he said. "The Israelis are trying to destroy us, but we, the Arab people, will never be destroyed."

The foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan -- the two Arab countries that have peace treaties with Israel and have been trying to broker a cease-fire -- were among those who voted for the move.

Although Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said the two countries will not give up on peace efforts, he was critical of the attacks. "Sharon is making the peace process difficult," Mubarak said. "The use of excessive force will never lead to peace."

A spokesman for Sharon called the league's decision self-defeating, because it did not urge Arafat to halt the violence.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres voiced regret about the league's decision. "Peace is something that needs continuous cultivating and unending dialogue," he said.

In Moscow, Peres met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who told the Israeli foreign minister the retaliatory air strikes were improper and impossible to justify or explain.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, expressed sympathy for the Israelis. "I think it's questionable, but I think it's understandable," he told ABC's This Week.

"To a large degree, it's understandable when these kinds of acts of terror are being orchestrated from a terrorist organization that at least Mr. Arafat is condoning, if not encouraging," McCain said.

Some Israeli politicians joined the Arab nations in calling for the United States to take a more active role. Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer urged the United States to persuade the Palestinians to end the violence.

In a telephone call, Mubarak urged U.S. President George W. Bush to intervene.

Some U.S. lawmakers also urged the White House to become more involved. "I hope they will do that, because without our leadership, I don't think the violence is going to stop any time soon," said House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Missouri.

Dennis Ross, a former U.S. Middle East envoy in the Clinton administration, joined the calls for Bush to intervene. "If you're going to transform the situation, I think there is going to have to be some kind of more intensive initiative," he said.

But Vice President Dick Cheney said the administration is actively involved. "We are very concerned with the loss of life now on both sides. The level of violence appears to be escalating. That's clearly not in anybody's interest. We need to find some way to try to cap the violence and get some process started to rebuild confidence."

And, Cheney said on NBC's "Face the Nation," Israel should refrain from using F-16s against the Palestinians.

"Both sides should stop and think about where they are headed here and recognize that down this road lies disaster," Cheney said. "It's clear now the consequences, both for the Israelis and the Palestinians, of continuing this ... escalation of violence are beginning to get very, very serious."

Cheney did not, however, say whether the United States, which makes F-16s available to other countries with the proviso that they be used for legitimate defense purposes, would make any moves to halt the Israeli's use of the planes.



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