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Israel rejects Zinni meeting with Arafat

Zinni and Sharon
Zinni met separately with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in March.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Israel has denied a U.S. request to allow Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni to travel to Ramallah to meet with besieged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, a Bush administration official told CNN.

The White House official said U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer requested the meeting on Monday but that Israel said it was "too dangerous" for Zinni to travel there.

The official said the United States believes the rejection was an attempt by Israel to further isolate Arafat, who has been confined to his Ramallah compound by Israeli tanks and troops since last Friday.

The ongoing Israeli military operations in the West Bank began last week during a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings that began with a terrorist attack in Netanya at the start of Passover. Israeli officials have said the military action is intended to root out terrorism.

The operations expanded Wednesday as Israeli tanks and armored vehicles entered Nablus, the largest West Bank city, and other towns. (Full story)

Israel tanks and troops roll into West Bank towns of Nablus, Tulkarem, Jenin and Salfit.  
Fighting between Hezbollah forces and Israeli troops along Israel-Lebanon border.  
About 200 Palestinians, mostly men, remain holed up inside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.  
Egypt announces suspension of all ties with Israel except diplomatic contacts that "serve the Palestinian cause."  
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat remains under siege and isolated in his Ramallah compound, surrounded by Israeli tanks and soldiers.  
Israeli officials denied a U.S. request to allow Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni to meet with Arafat in Ramallah.  
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Israel's rejection of the U.S. request for Zinni's visit comes as Arab nations are stepping up their pressure on the United States to step up its efforts in the region.

Some of that pressure is coming from Egypt, a key U.S. ally in the region and one of only three Arab countries that has ties with Israel.

In two "angry" letters, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned U.S. President Bush the Israeli invasion of Palestinian territories is rapidly spinning out of control, senior Arab diplomats said Wednesday. (Full story)

Egypt also announced it was suspending all ties with Israel except for diplomatic contacts. Egypt's Middle East News Agency quoted the country's information minister as saying Egypt would limit its ties with Israel to those that "serve the Palestinian cause."

Meanwhile, the secretary-general of the Arab League Wednesday denounced the operations as "carnage" and said Palestinian civilians were suffering. "The situation is very, very serious, and it is going from bad to worse," Amr Moussa told CNN.

Arab leaders are under increasing pressure at home over the escalating tensions in the region. Protests erupted in several Arab countries on Wednesday over Israel's actions in the West Bank and U.S. policy in support of Israel.

In Beirut, Lebanon, police used batons, water cannons and tear gas to control hundreds of people who rallied in front of the U.S. Embassy, demanding the United States take a "more balanced" role in the Mideast. Protests were also reported in Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan.

White House says no change in policy

Yet, despite the calls for a new approach in the Middle East, the Bush administration said Wednesday it still believes a political solution is "very hard to achieve" until a cease-fire takes hold.

"It's just logical, so long as there is violence, it's very hard for both parties to engage in meaningful political talks," said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.

Still, Fleischer said, the United States is "committed to progress" on both a cease-fire and a political solution, a message which seemed designed to appease Palestinians who have accused Washington of a pro-Israel bias.

Many Middle East observers believe the only way Palestinians might agree to a cease-fire is if there is a discussion of political issues.

"I think it goes without saying that it's going to be easier to make progress on the political front if the violence is reduced," Fleischer said. "And so it makes sense that both are important. But the focus has got to be, in the president's opinion, on reducing the violence, to make the political talks more fruitful."

A senior administration official told CNN that Bush never said a cease-fire was a prerequisite for a political solution, or that a political settlement could not be achieved without a complete end to the violence.

"He's never said it's impossible," the official said. "He said it's harder. It's common sense."

Other developments

  • U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld strongly condemned Iraqi President Saddam Hussein Wednesday for promoting terrorism in the region by paying each family of a Middle East suicide bomber $25,000. Rumsfeld said Hussein has decided to "actively promote and finance human sacrifice for families that will have their youngsters kill innocent men, women and children."
  • Meeting in Malaysia, the Organization of Islamic Countries Wednesday categorized Israeli attacks as "state terrorism" -- but declined to put Palestinian suicide bombings in the same category. (Full story)
  • Leaders of Arab-American and Muslim-American groups met Wednesday with Secretary of State Colin Powell to discuss what one called the Bush administration's "achingly inadequate" response to Israeli military action in the West Bank.
  • The European Union held an emergency meeting on the crisis, with EU diplomats agreeing to dispatch a delegation to the region, possibly as early as Thursday. The EU called for an immediate withdrawal by Israel from Palestinian territories and an end of Palestinian terror attacks against Israelis.
  • The Vatican condemned acts of terrorism and said Pope John Paul II "rejects unjust conditions and humiliations imposed on the Palestinian people as well as the reprisals and revenge attacks which do nothing but feed the sense of frustration and hatred."




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