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Israeli Incursion Complicates U.S. Diplomacy Efforts

Mideast: Ramallah raid comes on eve of Bush's talks in Washington with Mubarak and Sharon.


WASHINGTON — An Israeli raid early today on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah comes at a bad time for the Bush administration, occurring on the eve of talks here with Egyptian and Israeli leaders over the next several days aimed at prodding along the troubled Middle East peace process.

The U.S. effort, launched two months ago by President Bush, is now at a critical juncture as the administration presses for an international conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The administration has been trying to find enough common ground among Israelis, Palestinians and moderate Arab leaders to work out a formula and timetable for resolving the decades-old dispute.

Administration officials said they were still trying to get details about the scope, intent and duration of the Israeli attack on Arafat's compound. But Washington is clearly piqued about Israel launching the action just ahead of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's meetings with Bush here Friday and Saturday.

"This is not the path to peace," said an annoyed administration official who requested anonymity.

The U.S. mediation efforts already had been rocked by a suicide bombing early Wednesday outside the Israeli town of Megiddo, which in turn sparked the Israeli raid in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The radical movement Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the blast.

Bush condemned "in the strongest terms" the bombing, which killed 17 Israeli bus passengers.

The United States has been pressing hard to get Arafat to rein in extremists. This week, CIA Director George J. Tenet held talks with the Palestinian Authority president about forming a new unified security force to deal with militants and reopening security talks with Israel.

The administration has also been urging restraint by the Israelis--to allow Arafat a chance to act and the United States to organize the conference.

Before the Israeli assault on Ramallah, there were growing indications that U.S. officials were questioning the power and future role of Arafat.

Reacting to the suicide bombing, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said, "We note the Palestinian Authority's condemnation of the attack and reiterate the critical need for Chairman Arafat to show leadership by continuing to signal clearly to his people that terror and violence cannot help the Palestinians achieve their national aspirations."

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer used sharper terms, saying, "In the president's eyes, Yasser Arafat has never played a role of someone who can be trusted or who was effective."

The administration has begun looking to other Palestinians to assume leadership roles, including members of humanitarian aid groups and other nongovernmental organizations, academics and professionals, as well as others in the Palestinian Authority.

But the administration also wants to avoid inflaming Arab sensibilities by being seen as formally rejecting Arafat or determining who leads the Palestinians.

"People are coming forward [among Palestinians] and there are more people to talk to, and I think that's a good thing," a senior administration official told a group of reporters Wednesday.

"But I want to be very clear--we're not going to try to choose the leadership for the Palestinian people."

The White House seemed to be signaling to Arafat that the U.S. would not wait indefinitely for him to follow through on his recent promises to try to end the sporadic series of suicide bombings.

"What the president is interested in is results, from whatever corner they may come from," Fleischer said. "If that's Arafat, that's fine with the president. If it's others, that's fine with the president."

The question of Palestinian leadership will be among the issues on the agenda when Bush meets with Mubarak and when he meets Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The peace conference, which the administration originally hoped could be held this month, has been pushed to next month at the earliest, U.S. officials say.

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