WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush urged Arab nations yesterday to approve a Saudi peace offer to Israel and asked Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to let Yasser Arafat join an Arab League summit where the U.S.-backed initiative may be considered.

Paul Wong
Arab League chief Amr Moussa, right, and Lebanese Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud, left, prepare for a summit of heads of state tomorrow. (AP PHOTO)

“The president believes it is time for Arab nations in the region to seize the moment, to create a better environment for peace to take root,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said of the meeting that opens tomorrow in Beirut, Lebanon.

Bush welcomes the proposal by Crown Prince Abdullah, and “he thinks it would be very helpful in the search for peace in the Middle East,” Fleischer said.

The Saudi offer to Israel of “full normalization” of relations with Arab governments depends on Israel giving up the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights and accepting a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem.

Leaning on Israel to drop its confinement of Arafat to his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah, Fleischer said, “The president believes that Prime Minister Sharon and the Israel government should give serious consideration to allowing Yasser Arafat to attend.”

Secretary of State Colin Powell pressed the point in telephone conversations with Sharon Saturday and Sunday, saying also that Arafat should be permitted to go back to the West Bank after the Arab League meeting.

Some Israelis believe that if Arafat were to be allowed to go, he should not be allowed to return to the Palestinian areas. Yesterday, Arafat said that would be unacceptable.

“Is there any law to prevent me … to come back to my homeland? This is my right,” Arafat said in an interview on ABC’s “World News Tonight.”

Arafat also said he is trying to stop the violence.

“I am making a 100 percent effort … but no one can get 100 percent results except God,” he said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who has called Israel’s hold on the West Bank and Gaza illegal, also urged Sharon to let Arafat attend the Arab summit.

Annan’s spokesman, Fred Eckhard, said at the United Nations that Annan would meet Arafat if the Palestinian leader were to be allowed to go to Beirut.

In Jerusalem, however, Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Sharon, said Israel would not lift its travel ban until the Palestinian leader took decisive steps against militants. Israel will make its decision by today, the day before the summit, Gissin said.

Sharon proposed his own peace plan yesterday, in three stages that would begin with an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire, move on to a “long-range interim period” with a partial peace arrangement and then to negotiations for permanent peace.

Powell also had a lengthy telephone conversation yesterday with Arafat, in which Powell again urged Arafat to give “clear and unambiguous orders to Palestinian security forces to prevent further terror attacks,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

Powell called on Arafat to dismantle Hezbollah, a militant group backed by Iran and Syria that has fought a low-level cross-border war with Israel from its sanctuary in Lebanon.

The State Department has listed Hezbollah as a terror group.

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