Arafat urges speedy U.S. peace plan


RAMALLAH, West Bank, AP

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat asked the United States Friday to convene a Mideast peace conference as quickly as possible, while Israeli tanks raided Jenin, hometown of the latest Palestinian suicide bomber.

Opinion polls, meanwhile, indicated that both Israelis and Palestinians oppose a Saudi Arabian peace plan that calls for Israel to withdraw from the territories it captured in the 1967 war in exchange for peaceful relations with the Arab world.

The Arab plan is one of several ideas to be discussed at a Mideast crisis conference in Turkey next month. U.S. officials are developing a number of options for U.S. President George W. Bush to consider, including proposing a timetable for peace talks and perhaps even some solutions to the thorniest political issues.

As part of consultations, Bush was to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak later Friday and with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday.

Arafat, whose West Bank compound was assaulted by Israeli troops on Thursday, in retaliation for a bus bombing that killed 17 Israelis, called for quick action regarding the conference.

“I am telling Bush and Mubarak to accelerate their efforts to save this peace process before it collapses,” Arafat told reporters at his headquarters.

In the Israeli assault, troops blew up three buildings and shelled Arafat’s master bedroom. The Palestinian leader, who was not in his room at the time, accused Israel of trying to harm him, a charge denied by Israeli army officials.

The assault came in response to a suicide attack Wednesday in which a member of the Islamic Jihad group, an 18-year-old high school dropout, detonated a car packed with 70 kilos (150 pounds) of explosives alongside a bus, killing 17 Israelis and himself.

The bomber was from Jenin, a stronghold of extremists. On Friday morning, about 20 tanks rolled into Jenin. Soldiers declared a curfew, confining residents to their homes. The Israeli military called the operation a “routine patrol.” Also, Israeli forces declared curfews in five villages near Jenin, residents said.

Israeli forces also patrolled the southern edge of Bethlehem early Friday but did not enter the town, the military said. Palestinians said Israeli forces briefly entered the town of Tulkarem and arrested a female student.

The spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, said the Islamic extremist group would continue attacks, despite a call from Arafat to stop them. “We shall continue to pursue them (Israelis) everywhere, and they will not have security as long as we don’t have it,” he said in an interview published in the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar on Friday, repeating the Hamas view that Israel belongs to the Palestinians.

The daily violence and counterstrikes threatens to undermine new U.S. efforts to end to 21 months of fighting. In the past week, two top-level U.S. officials have visited for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said a key part of a new U.S. peace formula could be a settlements-for-refugees trade. “There is something new emerging in the U.S. which says that the Palestinians will give up on the right of return (of refugees and their descendants) in exchange for Israel giving up on all the settlements” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he said.

He told Israel Radio on Friday that this is not an official administration plan.

U.S. officials did not comment directly. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said “we are listening” to what various leaders have to say.

Polls in the Jerusalem Post daily found widespread opposition to a Saudi peace plan among both Israelis and Palestinians. According to the Saudi plan, Israel would leave all territories it captured in the 1967 war, including the West Bank, Gaza Strip, east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, in exchange for peaceful relations with the Arab world.

A poll by the Smith Institute found that 22 percent of Israelis favor the plan, while 73 percent were opposed. The survey questioned 501 Israelis and quoted a 4.5 percent margin of error.

A poll by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion showed that 62 percent opposed the Saudi plan and 24 percent were in favor. The poll questioned 1,181 Palestinians and quoted a 2.85 percent margin of error. The Saudi plan is vague on the fate of refugees, a core issue for the Palestinians.