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U.S. weighs options for Arafat, Palestinian Authority


By Andrea Koppel and Elise Labott
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration is engaged in an intense, high-level debate as to how best to deal with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, senior administration officials say.

Several senior U.S. officials told CNN Thursday that Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and their senior aides in recent days have advised President Bush to suspend relations with the Palestinian Authority.

Others have urged just the opposite, said officials who asked not to be identified. Secretary of State Colin Powell has told President Bush that he believes it's important to maintain some sort of relationship with Arafat, they said.

"There is a creative debate going on about what is the best way to proceed," one senior official said about the senior-level discussions.

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The debate follows mounting violence in the region and the interception of the weapons-laden ship Karine-A earlier this month.

Options under consideration include "putting a lot more pressure on Arafat to actually cutting off contact with the Palestinian Authority," a senior administration official said. "But for now we are still looking to work with Arafat if he is looking to do the things he needs to do."

Powell believes that there would be "nothing to gain," by cutting ties with Arafat and that US allies in Europe and the Arab world would not stand for such a move, one senior official said.

Coming to the U.S.

What the Bush administration's next move should be will hinge on whether Arafat takes steps to improve the security situation, several senior officials said.

Late Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office said he had accepted an invitation from President Bush to meet with him in the United States on February 7.

Several senior officials said Powell spoke separately by phone with Arafat and Sharon on Wednesday. Arafat asked Powell to send U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni back to the region to put a cease-fire in effect, they said.

Powell said Zinni would not return to the region "without some action" on Arafat's report, one official said.

Arafat has continued to deny any knowledge of the Iranian weapons shipment bound for the Palestinian territories on the Karine-A, which was intercepted by the Israelis earlier this month, but Powell was skeptical, sources said.

"Powell told him to get real," one official said.

Arafat, the sources said, has lost "all credibility" with the administration, though some advisers say he be given a chance to redeem himself.

The senior-level discussions come amid intense congressional pressure on the Bush administration to take a harder line with Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.

Terrorism alleged

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-New York, a member of the International Relations Committee's Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, sent Powell a letter on Wednesday calling on him to add Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization to the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

"Given the record of involvement in terrorism by Fatah, Arafat's central faction of the PLO, the Fatah Tanzim, the Al-Aqsa Brigade, and Force 17, I strongly urge that you list as terrorist organizations the PLO and its militant components in the next annual Patterns of Global Terrorism report," wrote Engel.

The State Department has long been investigating possible Fatah, Tanzim and Force 17 involvement in terrorist activity, but so far no move against the groups has been taken.

Officials said they are expecting legislation by Congress which calls on the administration to take further action against Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. Late last year a resolution passed the House and Senate calling on President Bush to suspend ties with the Palestinians.

Such a move at present is unlikely, they said. "There are ideas being tossed around" one senior official said. "But the indications are that we are going to remain engaged."




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