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US: Arafat-Cheney meeting not guaranteed

Palestinian leader has conditions to satisfy, officials say

By John King
CNN Senior White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- White House officials say they have until Sunday night to decide whether Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has met the conditions necessary for a face-to-face meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney before next week's Arab summit.

At the same time, the White House moved to make clear its displeasure with Arafat, specifying the steps he must take if he wants the meeting to go forward and maintain the recent progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire.

Officials said Arafat's reaction to Thursday's deadly bombing in Jerusalem was pivotal in the assessment as to whether the Cheney meeting will take place.

Both the president and vice president said in an Oval Office meeting Thursday morning that the final call would be made by special Mideast envoy Anthony Zinni, based on his assessment of whether Arafat was keeping his promise to implement the security improvements required by the so-called Tenet Plan. The security framework is named for CIA Director George Tenet.

After the Oval Office session, administration officials debated whether to put pressure on Arafat, and:

  • Secretary of State Colin Powell called the Palestinian leader from Air Force One, as he traveled to Texas and then on to Mexico with the president. Powell told Arafat he needed to immediately condemn the latest attack, and arrest those who claimed responsibility. A militant brigade with ties to Arafat's Fatah movement claimed responsibility. (Full story)
  • The State Department made public its designation of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, as a foreign terrorist origination. That designation blocks any fund-raising in the United States or travel to the United States by brigade members. But senior officials said it made a point to Arafat: By publicly designating Al Aqsa as a terrorist group, the administration was giving tacit approval for an Israeli military response if Arafat does not move quickly to dismantle the group and arrest those responsible for the Jerusalem bombing. (Full story)
  • Bush and top aides decided the president would make a second statement in a speech in El Paso, Texas. In that speech, Bush not only called on Arafat to do more to promote peace, repeated what some are calling the "Bush doctrine": "If you harbor a terrorist, if you feed a terrorist, if you feed a terrorist, you're just as guilty as the terrorists themselves."
  • The administration believes a Cheney-Arafat meeting could serve several important purposes:

  • Give Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon political cover for lifting travel restrictions on Arafat so he can attend the Arab summit that begins Wednesday in Beirut, Lebanon. (Sharon can say the United States asked for permission for Arafat to travel to Egypt. So who, Sharon can ask, was to stop him from going on to Beirut anyway?)
  • Allow Cheney to put Arafat on notice not to say anything at the summit that might incite more violence.
  • Change the tenor of a summit U.S. officials fear will be dominated by criticism of Israel and the United States if Arafat is not allowed to attend. With Arafat present, U.S. officials hope the focus will be on the new Saudi peace initiative, and that Arab leaders will pressure Arafat to do his part to make a lasting cease fire take hold.
  • But two deadly bombings in two days have raised questions anew about whether Arafat has either the will or the authority to bring extremist Palestinian elements in line.

    "This is his test," said one senior official involved in the deliberations. "Everyone knew there would be efforts by those who do not want peace to undermine the progress that we believe is being made."

    Another official said of the bombing, "This is not helpful, obviously." But the official said it was too soon to say whether it would cause the administration to decide Arafat had not met the conditions for the Cheney meeting.




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