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Israel threatens US bid to woo Arabs

By Suzanne Goldenberg in Jerusalem and Ewen MacAskill in London

Israel has emerged as an early stumbling block to Washington's plans to recruit Arab states to a broad war coalition as the Prime Minister, Mr Ariel Sharon, rebuffed US calls for ceasefire talks and ordered the third invasion of a Palestinian-ruled city in less than a week.

European countries fear Israel is using events in the US as cover for punitive actions against the Palestinians that contravene international law. Last week, the British Foreign Office protested to Israel after its assault on the West Bank city of Jenin.

On Sunday, seven Israeli tanks entered Ramallah, the capital of Mr Yasser Arafat's administration in the West Bank, and private homes.

On the political front, too, Mr Sharon has toughened his stance. On Sunday he set new conditions for ceasefire talks that appear practically impossible for Mr Arafat to meet.

The standoff could jeopardise Washington's efforts to secure the support of Arab and Muslim countries for military action.

It has also triggered one of the most serious crises in Mr Sharon's national unity coalition. The Israeli Foreign Minister, Mr Shimon Peres, threatened to resign after Mr Sharon refused to let him hold truce talks with Mr Arafat.

Mr Peres told Israel Radio: "Why must we become the party that refuses? If we meet and he does not do anything, then all the blame will fall on him."

The assault on Ramallah adds to a catalogue of Israeli actions launched since the attack on America last Tuesday. Israel has:

Sent its armour into the desert town of Jericho, the quietest in the West Bank;

Advanced into Jenin, installing troops on the perimeter;

Launched missile strikes on Palestinian security posts in Gaza;

Used tanks to shell a suburb of Bethlehem, killing an ambulance driver at the weekend;

Tightened the siege of the cities of Tulkaram and Qalqiliya.

At least 15 Palestinians have been killed in these assaults.

The hardening of Israel's stand against ceasefire talks appears driven by Mr Sharon's desire to block the possibility of the Palestinians - and Syria - assuming any role in the US coalition, a possibility he views as "very dangerous".

President George Bush telephoned Mr Sharon on Friday to urge him to allow Mr Peres to attend the truce talks. The US Secretary of State, Mr Colin Powell, also spoke with Mr Sharon, and held two conversations with Mr Arafat.

Mr Sharon refused to let the talks go ahead, and at a special session of Israel's parliament on Sunday, the Israeli Prime Minister hardened still further his opposition to a Peres-Arafat meeting.

Since Tuesday, Mr Arafat has been signalling that he does not want to repeat his mistake of a decade ago, when he opposed the US in the Gulf War.

Spokesmen for Mr Sharon acknowledged last week that Israel will have to take a back seat in any Washington-led coalition for fear of antagonising Arab states - replicating its low profile during the Gulf War when Iraq fired Scud missiles on Tel Aviv.

"In my view, a meeting with Arafat now, who is launching terror with full force and is doing nothing to stop it ... will give Arafat legitimacy as a good guy," Mr Sharon said.

-- Martin Thompson (, September 18, 2001

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