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US Expects Israel Not to Harm Arafat - 2004-04-23

The Bush administration Friday reaffirmed its opposition to Israel trying to exile or kill Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The comments followed an assertion by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that he was no longer bound by a commitment to the United States not to harm the Palestinian Authority chief.

A senior Bush administration official says the United States has made it "entirely clear" that it would oppose any action to harm Yasser Arafat and that the U.S. position has been reiterated to Israeli authorities following the latest Sharon remarks.

The Israeli Prime Minister said in a television interview Friday that he told President Bush at their White House meeting last week that he had released himself from a commitment he made to the United States three years ago not to physically harm Mr. Arafat.

The senior administration official, who spoke to reporters at the White House, said the issue had come up at the April 14 meeting and that the President reiterated U.S. opposition to such an action.

He said the matter had been taken up with Israel following the Sharon interview remarks and that the United States considers the Sharon promise to still be operative. "We consider a pledge," he said, "a pledge."

The Bush administration has opposed Israel's "targeted killing" of Palestinians, and denied giving Israel a "green light" for the helicopter strike in Gaza last Saturday that killed Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

In a statement after the attack, the White House said Israel has a right to defend itself from terrorists, but that it was "gravely concerned" about regional peace and stability and that Israel should carefully consider the consequences of its actions.

In another development, Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia Friday in the highest-level U.S.-Palestinian contact since the Bush-Sharon meeting, which produced a U.S. endorsement of Mr. Sharon's controversial plan for disengagement from the Palestinians.

The Sharon plan calls for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza but would allow some Jewish settlements to remain in the West Bank.

The Bush administration has stressed the importance of the Gaza pullback as a catalyst for reviving the regional peace process.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Secretary Powell urged Mr. Qureia and also Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath, in a similar conversation on Wednesday, to consider the Gaza withdrawal an opportunity:

"In both those conversations, the Secretary emphasized the importance of moving forward," he said. "In both those conversations, the Secretary emphasized our desire to take the opportunity that was presented by Israeli withdrawal from territory, the withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza as well as some places on the West Bank, to make it work, for the Palestinians to take responsibility, and for this to be seen as an opportunity."

Palestinians were outraged by statements by President Bush last week that it would be "unrealistic" for Israel to return to pre-1967 borders as part of a peace settlement, and that Palestinian refugees would be expected to return to an envisaged Palestinian state, not Israel.

Mr. Boucher said the Secretary listened to Palestinian concerns in the two phone conversations, while reiterating the U.S. stand that the President was not prejudging final-status issues between the sides.

The spokesman said the United States will continue working with the parties and the international "quartet" on the Middle East to "try to move forward."

There had been tentative plans for a senior-level meeting of the "quartet", the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, next week in Berlin. But there were logistical problems, and U.S. officials say the meeting is now likely to be held at the U.N. early next month.