Israel OKs U.S. proposal to lift Arafat siege, but delays UN fact-finders

Israel's cabinet gave in to pressure from President Bush and dropped its demand to extradite the murderers of minister Ze'evi and two other wanted terrorists, allowing their jailing in Palestinian areas under U.S. or U.K. supervision. Arafat accepts the deal, which enables his release from a month-long siege in Ramallah. The Israeli cabinet voted to delay arrival of the UN fact-finding commission to Jenin, prompting the convening of a Security Council meeting Sunday night to discuss the decision.

After a stormy session and a series of telephone conversations between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and U.S. President Bush, the cabinet voted 17 to 8 to accept Bush's proposal to end Israel's siege on Arafat's headquarters in exchange for the jailing of Ze'evi's killers.

The Palestinians to be jailed reportedly include Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) leader Ahmed Saadat and Palestinian Authority financial chief Fuad Shubaki, thought by Israel to have orchestrated the Karine A weapons smuggling deal and authorized payment for suicide bombers and other terrorists.

Arafat has reportedly accepted the deal, although he had objected to the inclusion of Saadat, who Israel claims ordered the killing of Ze'evi, and Shubaki, who has served for years as Arafat's right-hand man in financial affairs. The PFLP called on Arafat to reject the deal.

Originally the cabinet was deadlocked and Sharon refused to cast the deciding vote. Sharon then spoke with Bush, reportedly for the third time of the day, who applied "unprecedented" pressure to accept his proposal, Israel Radio reported. Israeli diplomatic sources said the President "made him an offer he could not refuse."

After communicating the contents of the conversation to the cabinet, Sharon voted with the majority, with the support of the religious Shas party, the Labor party ministers, and two other Likud ministers (Reuven Rivlin and Tzipi Livni), to accept the Bush proposal. Voting against the deal were ministers Limor Livnat, Silvan Shalom, Tzachi Hanegbi, Uzi Landau, and Danny Naveh of the Likud, Yitzhak Levy and Effi Eitam of the National Religious Party, David Levy of the Gesher party and Natan Sharansky of Yisrael Ba'aliya.

Bush praised the decision, which came following meetings at his ranch with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, who had urged him to apply stronger pressure on Israel. "The president views the vote of the Israeli cabinet as helpful and constructive," a White House statement said. "The next move is up to Yasser Arafat." As an apparent sweetener for approving his proposal, Bush reportedly invited Sharon to Washington next week.

The cabinet decision drew sharp criticism from the Palmach Ze'evi, son of the murdered minister, who said that Sharon's decision was a "blatant violation of his personal commitments" and an "insult" to Israel's sovereignty. Knesset Member Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the assassinated minister's former party, which left the government two months ago, demanded that Sharon keep his promise and bring the murderers to Israel and said that the decision further "distances" his party from rejoining the coalition.

Former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called it a "miserable decision" that would "undermine Israel's standing in the region" and nullified the achievements of Operation Defensive Shield. It would, he said, effectively free Ze'evi's killers in a short period of time, since the Americans and British would not hold them for the length of their sentences which in any case were imposed by what the government itself caused a "farce" of a trial. The worst effect, he said, was that it would free Arafat and enable him to resume his incitement and direction of Palestinian terror."

UN will convene to discuss Israeli decision The UN Security Council is convening Sunday night following the Israeli decision to delay the arrival of the Jenin fact-finding commission until further clarifications about the commission's mandate and its terms of reference are clarified.

Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin (Likud), speaking on behalf of the cabinet, told reporters that the UN had gone back on its agreements with Israel over the team and its powers, and therefore the commission would be denied entry. "This awful United Nations committee is out to get us and is likely to smear Israel and to force us to do things which Israel is not prepared even to hear about, such as interrogating soldiers and officers who took part in the fighting," he said. "No country in the world would agree to such a thing."

There were reports from the Israeli cabinet meeting that President Bush had expressed understanding for Israel's position on the UN fact-finding committee, but while there has been no formal promise that the U.S. delegation would exercise its veto in defense of Israel, that was the expressed understanding of several ministers as Bush's quid pro quo for Israel's acceptance of his proposal to lift the siege on Arafat.

The Palestinian Authority was furious about the Israeli decision to delay the commission's arrival. "We urge the secretary general of the United Nations to send the fact-finding team immediately," Palestinian Minister Saeb Erakat said. "Let Sharon deny them entry into the country if he chooses. Enough is enough. Enough Israeli delaying tactics."

There have been no breakthroughs concerning the standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, although there were reports of a possible meeting to be scheduled late Sunday night.


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