U.S. Joins U.N.'s Israeli Withdrawal Vote

The United States joined other U.N. Security Council members Saturday in adopting a resolution that calls on Israel to withdraw its troops from Palestinian cities, including Ramallah, where Yasser Arafat's headquarters is under siege.

The 14-0 vote, at 4:30 a.m. EST, capped a marathon emergency session called at the request of the Palestinians. It came a day after Israel declared the Palestinian leader an enemy and, vowing to isolate him, launched an extensive military campaign in response to a series of attacks on Israeli civilians.

It was the second time in a month that the United States, Israel's closest ally, approved a Mideast resolution, after years of abstaining and vetoing Council measures critical of Israel. On March 13, the United States voted with the council to approve a resolution calling for a Palestinian state.

In Jerusalem, the Foreign Ministry responded by saying Israel "has no interest" in remaining in Palestinian areas.

"It would have been preferable if the resolution had more clearly stressed the Palestinian responsibility for the deplorable terrorist attacks, which constitute the sole reason for the Israel army's present operations," the statement said.

Saturday's vote was boycotted by Syria, Israel's most hard-line neighbor, which sought a resolution making no reference to Palestinian suicide bombings. The resolution adopted by the council expresses "grave concern" about the recent suicide bombings in Israel, and the Israeli raid on Arafat's West Bank compound.

It was the first boycott of a council vote in 42 years, dating back to 1960 when the Soviet Union stayed away from a session that created a peacekeeping mission in the Congo.

Syria's U.N. ambassador Mikhail Wehbe said he stayed away because the resolution did not condemn Israeli attacks against Palestinians. He also said that it did not note the initiative of this week's Arab summit in Lebanon to achieve "a global, comprehensive peace, a just peace, a permanent peace in the area."

"We tried our best to get a resolution that would address the aspirations of the Arab group, but unfortunately we did not find it to the level that we hoped," Wehbe said.

The adopted resolution calls on "both parties to move immediately to a meaningful cease-fire; calls for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian cities, including Ramallah; and calls upon the parties to cooperate fully with (U.S.) Special Envoy (Anthony) Zinni" to work to get a cease-fire and start negotiations for a political settlement.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan opened a five-hour public debate of the resolution, introduce by Norway on Friday, by urging Israel to stop its assault on Arafat's compound, saying destroying it will not bring peace.

Calling suicide bombings "repugnant," he said they subverted all peace attempts.

Deputy U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham warned Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his government "to carefully consider the consequences" of attacking Arafat's headquarters.

Cunningham said Arafat must not be harmed.

"Chairman Arafat is the leader of the Palestinian people. His leadership is now, and will be, central to any meaningful effort to restore calm," Cunningham said.

The meeting concluded a tumultuous week in Middle East politics — Arab League nations endorsed a Saudi peace plan, a suicide bomber killed 22 Passover diners, and Sharon vowed that Israel would "isolate" Arafat with a massive military push.

U.N. envoy Nasser al-Kidwa called the Ramallah assault more "insane" steps by Sharon. "Any harm to President Arafat would be the mother of all these mistakes," he said.

Israel's U.N. Ambassador Yehuda Lancry blamed Arafat for the crisis, saying the militants find sanctuary in his headquarters.

"Chairman Arafat has made it abundantly clear both through his actions and inactions that the murder of innocent Israeli civilians is legitimate and desirable and that somehow terrorism and dialogue can live side by side," he said.