WASHINGTON – The White House had little to say about remarks coming from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suggesting that he will not allow Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to attend Wednesday's Arab League Summit in Beirut. Meanwhile, Arafat has said he will not attend the meeting.
Nevertheless, Palestinian Cabinet Secretary Ahmed Abdel Rahman said Arafat would address the Arab gathering from his Ramallah headquarters through a satellite hookup.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer mostly ducked questions about Sharon's latest statements, saying he hadn't had enough time to study them, but he indicated that President Bush still has high hopes for the Arab League summit.
"The president hopes that the meeting in Beirut will focus on ways to find peace as opposed to take attendance. The president believes that no matter who goes, the ideas that were advanced by Crown Prince Abdullah can be very helpful in creating a consensus among Arab nations that there needs to be a path to peace in the Middle East, and that path to peace has got to begin with a recognition of Israel's right to exist in security," Fleischer said.
Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah has drafted a document prepared for Arab leaders that calls for recognition of Israel in exchange for land lost by the Arabs in the 1967 Mideast war. Under the initiative, Israel would also accept a Palestinian state with its capital there and consider repatriating hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees.
Sharon did not comment on it Tuesday night when he told Israel's Arabic language news that "unfortunately, the conditions have not developed for allowing Arafat to go to Beirut."
"If it is said to Israel by the United States that (Israel) can refuse to allow him to return if there are terror attacks, it will be easier for me to allow him to leave," he added.
Because of unrelenting Palestinian terror attacks against Israel, Arafat has been confined to the West Bank since mid-December. U.S. officials have urged Sharon to allow Arafat to attend the summit because they fear his absence would overshadow any peace talks in Beirut.
Shortly after Sharon's comments, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose moderate views on the Arab-Israeli conflict are prized by U.S. administrations, announced he would not attend the summit.
Not speaking specifically to Mubarak's announcement, Fleischer said the Arab nations should not lose an opportunity even if Arafat is not present.
"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," he said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell pressed the desire for Arafat to attend the meeting in two telephone calls to Sharon over the weekend, saying also that Arafat should be permitted to go back to the West Bank after the meeting.
In a long phone conversation Monday, Powell also urged Arafat to give "clear and unambiguous orders to Palestinian security forces to prevent further terror attacks," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who has called Israel's hold on the West Bank and Gaza an illegal occupation, also urged Sharon to let Arafat attend the Arab summit.
Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, said Annan would meet Arafat if Arafat goes to Beirut.
In Jerusalem, however, Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Sharon, said Israel would not lift its travel ban on Arafat until the Palestinian leader took decisive steps against militants.
In the meantime, it was announced Tuesday that the FBI arrested Mohammad Osman Idras on March 21, in Annandale, Va., for his alleged planning of a possible suicide attack. Another man, Palestinian-American Mohammed Hassan El-Yacoubi, was also arrested. The two were believed to be planning to carry out a suicide attack in Israel.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.