Bush Shrinks Back From
Demand That Israel Withdraw


WASHINGTON (AP) - The White House eased back Friday from President Bush's demand that Israel begin to pull its forces out of Palestinian-held areas of the West Bank.

As Israeli tanks, attack helicopters and troops advanced against Palestinian militia, spokesman Ari Fleischer said Israel needed time to digest what Bush expected of it.

"Major events don't necessarily happen overnight," Fleischer told reporters traveling with Bush in Texas. Still, he said, "the president expects results, and he expects them as soon as possible."

Secretary of State Colin Powell also did not call for an instant pullback in a news conference at the State Department.

He said Israel should begin a withdrawal "as soon as possible or without delay."

Meanwhile, a meeting with Arafat during Powell's trip to the region beginning Sunday night was in doubt.

Fleischer said Powell had no plans for such a meeting.

Powell confirmed that at the State Department but did not rule out a meeting with the Palestinian leader "in due course."

Powell's short-term goal is a cease-fire to stop the bloodletting. His long-term goal is to start Israel and the Palestinians on a peacemaking track.

Both goals are elusive. Powell is on the spot, as are the two principal players in the region: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel and Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Authority.

Even if he is being granted some time, Sharon is under pressure from Bush to withdraw Israeli troops from Palestinian-held cities "without delay."

But on Friday, Israeli tanks moved into more Palestinian territory and attack helicopters battled hundreds of Palestinian gunmen in Nablus, the largest city on the West Bank, and in refugee camps.

Bush's demand was unconditional. But Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin ben-Eliezer said Thursday that unless the Palestinians cooperate with the United States to reach a cease-fire "Israel will continue its efforts to stop terror."

Equally on the spot, Arafat is under Bush pressure to confront terror and deal with it. And it could be his last chance to be treated by the administration as the leader of the Palestinians.

Powell consistently has argued the United States and Israel must deal with Arafat as the Palestinians' choice. Even the exile threatened by Sharon would not change that, Powell said this week.

His appears to be a lone voice at the top level of the U.S. government.

Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld both have urged Bush to suspend relations with Arafat. And Bush, rapidly losing patience, accused Arafat of betraying his people's hopes for nationhood by failing to oppose terrorists.

A cease-fire, the short-term goal, has eluded the intensive efforts of Anthony Zinni, the U.S. mediator who has met repeatedly with both sides in three separate missions to the region.

Powell intends to take over that chore while he is in the Middle East, with Zinni at his side, working for a breakthrough. It would then be Zinni's job to put the pieces together.

On Friday, Zinni called on Arafat, who is penned into his office in Ramallah by Israeli tanks, and told him "to take decisive action to end the violence," Philip Reeker, the deputy State Department spokesman, said.

The long-term goal, prodding Israel and the Palestinians toward peacemaking, is probably even more difficult.

Sharon is dead-set against peacemaking while Israel is under attack. The Bush administration has shifted gears, though.

Powell agreed with the prime minister on his trip to the region last June that there must be a period of calm before peacemaking could begin.

But with the European allies and Arab leaders demanding the Bush administration jump in, Bush has charged Powell with working on a 35-year-old U.N. blueprint: Israel should relinquish the land the Arabs lost in the 1967 war in exchange for peace and security.

And Powell, on Friday, said even while pursuing a cease-fire, dealing with "the political dimension is key" to resolving the Mideast crisis.

On Friday, the U.N. Security Council backed Powell's mission with a resolution that demands Israel withdraw its troops "without delay." Last Saturday, the Council also called for a pullout and for Israel and the Palestinians to "move immediately to a meaningful cease-fire."

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