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Sharon begins U.S. visit

An explosion killed a Palestinian activist in Nablus on Sunday  

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has arrived in the United States for talks amid more bitterness in the Middle East.

Palestinians have blamed Israel for the killing of a member of Yasser Arafat's Fatah group, while Sharon told the U.S. magazine Newsweek that Arafat was standing in the way of peace.

Sharon met briefly with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Sunday on his way to Washington to meet U.S. President George W. Bush on Tuesday.

Sharon, referring to Palestinian leader Arafat, told Newsweek: "If he were not here, it would be easier."

While acknowledging "it is not up to us to decide who leads the Palestinians," he said, "more and more of our intelligence people believe he is an obstacle to peace. ... I think Arafat is an obstacle."

Mother's grief
The mother of an Israeli soldier killed in Gaza on Friday is pulled away from his grave in Jerusalem on Sunday  

An explosion at a public telephone in Nablus, in the West Bank, killed 29-year-old Osama Jawabreh on Sunday. Palestinian officials said Jawabreh was on an Israeli wanted list and was assassinated.

Marwan Barghouti, Fatah leader in the West Bank, said Israel's government is "pushing the situation for more escalation and more confrontation."

"By this assassination, I think the Israeli government decided to end the cease-fire. More than that, the Israeli government destroyed the security understanding between the two sides," Barghouti said.

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Speaking to reporters after his 70-minute meeting with Blair, Sharon did not mention the death of Jawabreh. But a senior official traveling with Sharon told reporters that Jawabreh's name was on a list of suspects whom Israel asked the Palestinians to arrest on Friday.

According to the official, Israel gave the Palestinians 24 hours to make the arrests before it would take matters into its own hands. No one was arrested, the official said.

On Friday, as Israel buried two soldiers killed by a suicide bomber in Gaza, Sharon said he might revoke his proclaimed policy of restraint.

"We are suffering casualties daily," Sharon told an audience of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. "The repeated murderous attacks and violations of the cease-fire by the Palestinian Authority has forced us to start to reassess the situation."

In his meeting with Blair on Sunday, Sharon called for a complete end to violence before peace negotiations could continue. It was the two leaders' first meeting.

Sharon was expected to deliver the same message to Bush, whom he will be meeting with for the second time since the two men each took office earlier this year. Arafat, who was a regular guest of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, has yet to be invited to the White House by Bush, and many Palestinians have complained of what they see as U.S. favouritism towards Israel.

On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell will follow Sharon back to the Middle East in hopes of taking political steps beyond the cease-fire. Palestinian leaders are telling U.S. diplomats the cease-fire won't hold unless the clock on political action starts ticking right away.

"We must see a timeline expediting the Israeli obligation, the Israeli compliance with the freeze of settlement activity and the resumption of permanent status negotiations," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

Richard Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador and State Department official, said Powell's visit will help show moderate Arab states the Bush administration won't turn its back on them.

"We have many friends out there in the Arab world who want to see America committed and active," Murphy said.

Before meeting with Bush and Powell in Washington, Sharon is in New York for a planned speech before the America-Israel Friendship League.

• Israel Defense Forces
• Palestine Red Crescent Society
• Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs
• Palestinian National Authority

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