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Tensions mount as Bush works on peace proposal

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 15, 2002

While President Bush is expected to work this weekend on final details of a proposal for an interim Palestinian state, which he is expected to call for in a speech next week, the new Palestinian security chief said Friday he wants to "put an end" to militias involved in shooting and bombing attacks on Israelis, and Israel said it would begin building a fence along parts of the West Bank to keep out attackers.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and senior State Department officials held another round of meetings on Friday in preparation for Bush's expected announcement next week of his plans for reviving political talks and for an international peace conference to address the Middle East crisis. But a senior Western diplomat warned on Friday that the increased threat of military escalation along Israel's northern border with Lebanon could jeopardize any chance of an international peace conference, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Bush's proposal for the interim state, basically in an area no greater than the territory now controlled by the Palestinian Authority, will be heavily conditioned on the end of violence against Israel and possibly other steps that Bush's foreign policy team will spend the weekend debating, U.S. officials told the Los Angeles Times.

The idea behind an interim state is to generate hope among the Palestinians and undermine the belief among them that violence against Israel is the only means to move forward to eventual creation of a larger, permanent state, the administration officials told the Los Angeles Times.

Creating the formal mechanisms of an interim state -- including a constitution, national assembly and judiciary -- also could weaken the singular role Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat has played and disperse power among others, the officials told the Los Angeles Times. That is a major goal for both Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Meanwhile, Gen. Abdel Razak Yehiyeh, who was appointed interior minister in a weekend Cabinet reshuffle, said he would first engage in dialogue with the armed groups. Yehiyeh did not say how he would proceed if his appeals go unheeded.

Yehiyeh, the Palestinian security chief, said Friday, a day after being sworn in, that he would strive to neutralize the armed groups that have been carrying out terror attacks.

The Cabinet reshuffle, including the appointment of new interior and finance ministers, are part of reforms sought by the United States as a prerequisite for future diplomacy.

Arafat said Friday, after swearing in five new Cabinet ministers, that presidential and parliamentary elections would be held in December or January.

Israel's Defense Ministry, meanwhile, said it would begin construction of a 75-mile fence along one-third of the unmarked frontier with the West Bank on Sunday. The fence is designed to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers and gunmen who have killed more than 520 Israelis in the past 21 months of fighting. In the same period, more than 1,700 people have been killed on the Palestinian side.

There were signs of tension in Israel's coalition over the fence, which the Defense Ministry said would more or less run alongside the Green Line -- Israel's border before the capture of the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war.

Jewish settler leaders and right-wing parties in Sharon's coalition demanded that a fence instead be built around Palestinian towns and cities.

About 200,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank, and settler leaders fear that what the Defense Ministry is describing as a "security fence" will turn into a future border with a Palestinian state and leave the settlers further isolated on the wrong side.

In some areas, however, the fence would cut deep into the West Bank. The army has already seized about 30 square miles of West Bank land near the Palestinian towns of Jenin and Tulkarm for the construction of the barriers.

The Palestinians have dismissed the fence as ineffective, saying only peace agreements can bring Israel security.

And Friday, a diplomat told the New York Times there were indications of new weapons shipments from Iran to Hezbollah, the militia in southern Lebanon that has ties to both Iran and Syria. He said these included longer-range rockets that could be launched deep into Israel, perhaps within the next several days. The diplomat said such an attack could prompt a severe Israeli reprisal that could include an invasion of Lebanon.

For months, there has been intermittent shelling by Hezbollah and return Israeli fire. On a visit to the region in April, Powell visited Lebanon and Syria to pressure leaders there to crack down on activity by Hezbollah for fear it could prompt a regional war.

U.S. officials said that in the last 36 hours, diplomats in the region had renewed contacts with Lebanese and Syrian officials, urging restraint, especially given the administration's efforts to establish peace.

-- Information from the Los Angeles Times, Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.

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