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US May Downgrade Relations With Palestinian Authority - 2002-01-24

The Bush administration is expressing understanding for Israel's decision to confine Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to his West Bank headquarters, this, amid hints the administration may be considering a downgrade of its relations with Mr. Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization.

The Israeli military thrust into Ramallah last week, which has put Mr. Arafat under virtual house arrest at his offices there, has been widely condemned in the Arab world and elsewhere.

But the Bush administration is pointedly withholding direct criticism of the Israeli action as it steps up its own pressure on the Palestinian leader to crack down on extremist factions carrying out anti-Israel terror attacks.

Asked at a briefing here about the army squeeze on Mr. Arafat, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher expressed understanding for Israel's motives.

"We understand Israel's need to take steps to insure its security. I think we've been very clear that the focus needs to be on Palestinian action against violence and terror," he said. "And that's where we believe that Arafat's focus should be on the circumstances in the territories and on taking immediate action to improve the security situation there."

Mr. Boucher's remarks were mirrored by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who said President Bush believes it is "incumbent" on Mr. Arafat to do more and show with action that he is committed to combating and eliminating terrorism wherever it exists.

The Bush administration has effectively shelved the traditional U.S. approach of even-handed criticism of both sides following recent terror attacks against Israelis and the effort by Palestinians broken up by Israeli forces earlier this month to smuggle in a boatload of Iranian weapons.

Officials say the administration, based on its own information, believes that top associates of Mr. Arafat were involved in the smuggling scheme and say they are still awaiting an adequate explanation from the Palestinian leader.

Both the White House and State Department declined comment on Israeli press reports that the administration was considering a downgrade of relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization by closing down the PLO's Washington office.

But a senior official, who spoke to reporters here on condition of anonymity, said he would not foreclose any options and said what the administration does next will depend to a great extent on what Mr. Arafat does.