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Israel ponders letting Arafat attend summit

Calling on allies in Europe and the Arab world to help, the United States on Monday engaged in intense diplomacy with Israel and the Palestinians in a bid to reduce bloodshed and generate momentum for a peace proposal to be debated this week at an Arab League summit.

The Bush administration quietly tried to win Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's approval for Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to attend the summit in Beirut, Lebanon, which begins Wednesday.

In return, Arafat would have to come back immediately to pursue talks with Israel rather than launching a world tour to rally support. Washington also wants assurances from Israel that Arafat will be allowed to return to the West Bank, where he has been virtually confined for about three months.

U.S. officials said they were somewhat optimistic about winning Sharon's approval, barring another massive terrorist attack on Israelis.

In Israel, Sharon's deeply divided Cabinet debated Monday night whether to let Arafat travel to the summit. Hardliners who dominate the government argued against it. As an alternative, some suggested letting him go, but not letting him return.

Sharon said he will make a final decision today after Foreign Minister Shimon Peres returns to Israel. Peres and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, moderates in the government, advocate letting Arafat go.

Arafat's presence at the summit is considered crucial to winning approval of a Saudi peace proposal that would provide Israel with full Arab recognition in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from lands it occupied in the 1967 war.

President Bush called on Sharon to allow Arafat to attend what could be a historic summit. At the same time, Bush urged the Arab League to embrace the peace proposal.

"The president believes that the best way to pursue peace, as far as the Arab summit, would be for Chairman Arafat to travel there," White House spokesman Ari Flesicher said. "The president believes it is time for Arab nations in the region to seize the movement, to create a better environment for peace to take root."

Secretary of State Colin Powell talked with Arafat for about 30 minutes Monday and urged him to publicly condemn the escalating violence in "clear and unambiguous" terms, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

Reining in Palestinian militants, including Arafat's own faction, is critical to reviving a cease-fire plan drawn up by CIA director George Tenet. U.S. special envoy Anthony Zinni is mapping out steps both sides could take to end the violence, a senior State Department official said.

The official added that Powell made clear to Arafat that if Israel allows him passage to the summit, he should not use it to go on a "world tour."

Sharon reiterated his determination to keep Arafat confined to the West Bank city of Ramallah unless Palestinian attacks on Israelis come to a halt.

Palestinian senior mediator Saeb Erekat said Israel's restrictions on Arafat violate signed treaties.

"Mr. Sharon must stop this blackmail," he said.

Palestinian officials said that if Arafat does not travel to Beirut, he will deliver a speech by a live television hookup.

From Sharon's perspective, Israel stands to lose whether Arafat goes or stays. If he goes, he will use the summit as a platform to denounce Israel and will emerge as a survivor who has defied the Jewish state and who remains the indispensable leader of the Palestinian struggle.

If he stays in the West Bank, he will play the role of martyr, and his empty chair at the summit will be in the spotlight. He might enjoy greater stature among the Arab states by not being there.

Some analysts suggested Arafat might prefer to stay at home, especially if the summit is dominated by the Saudi peace initiative.

U.S. poll: Solution "very important'

Almost six in 10 Americans think finding a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a "very important" foreign policy goal for the United States, up from a third who felt that way in January 2000, according to a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll released Monday. The poll of 1,011 adults was taken Friday through Sunday and has an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.