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Cheney Ready to Meet Arafat; Sharon Willing to Lift Travel Ban - 2002-03-19

Vice President Dick Cheney has said he is willing to meet with Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat, after a ceasefire is implemented. Mr. Cheney made the comment during a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem.

Vice President Cheney said he is ready to meet Mr. Arafat as early as next week in the Middle East. Such a meeting would be the highest-level contact between the Palestinian leader and the Bush administration.

But Mr. Cheney said Mr. Arafat must implement the conditions of a truce mediated last year by Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet.

"I cannot emphasize enough how important it will be this week for Chairman Arafat to take the steps to get the ceasefire started and to start implementation of the Tenet work plan. Namely, to speak to his own people personally about the importance of ending violence and terrorism, to issue clear instructions to his security services to enforce the ceasefire, and to follow up closely these efforts to ensure implementation of the Tenet work plan," Mr. Cheney said.

Palestinians had initially been critical of Vice President Cheney for not scheduling a meeting with Mr. Arafat during his current visit, but welcomed the announcement that such talks could take place in the future.

Middle East Envoy Anthony Zinni is trying to negotiate the ceasefire to end nearly a year-and-a-half of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.

At the news conference, Prime Minister Sharon said he is willing to end restrictions on travel by Mr. Arafat once a truce is in place.

The Palestinian leader wants to attend an Arab summit next week in Beirut. Mr. Sharon left open the possibility that Mr. Arafat would not be able to return if there is another upsurge in violence or if the Palestinian leader delivers an inflammatory speech at the summit.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dominating Mr. Cheney's Middle East tour, although the original focus was the U.S.-led war on terrorism and charges that Iraq is trying to obtain nuclear weapons. The vice president made clear these are still top priorities of the Bush administration.

"We are concerned about the Iraqi pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and in particular the failure of the government of Iraq to comply with U.N. Security Council resolution 687, agreed to at the end of the Gulf war, which committed Iraq to get rid of, eliminate all their weapons of mass destruction. We know that that has not happened," Mr. Cheney said.

Mr. Cheney reiterated the Bush administration has made no decision regarding a possible military campaign against the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.