JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed Thursday to permit U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni to meet with besieged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Earlier this week, Sharon had turned down a request by Secretary of State Colin Powell to grant permission to Zinni to hold talks with Arafat, who has been confined to a few rooms in his Ramallah headquarters since last Friday.
Sharon changed his mind after meeting with Zinni on Thursday, shortly after President Bush announced he was sending Powell to the region in a bid to secure a cease-fire.
Earlier in the day, Israel blocked a European Union mission from meeting with Arafat.
Europeans are demanding a larger role in efforts to mediate the crisis in the Middle East, saying the United States is not doing enough to stop the violence.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who chairs the rotating EU presidency, was to lead the European mission, meeting separately with Sharon and Arafat. But after the Israeli Cabinet decided Wednesday night not to allow the EU delegation to see Arafat, the EU mission was downgraded, with Aznar being replaced by Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique, accompanied by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
In Madrid, Aznar said Israel had made a mistake in not allowing him to meet Arafat and said the solution to the conflict demanded "a more solid and firm stance by the United States and a combination with efforts from Russia."
He reaffirmed his support for agreements made at the recent EU summit meeting in Barcelona which expressed support for Arafat, called for an immediate cease-fire and Israel's withdrawal from occupied Palestine zones.
The European mission came after Romano Prodi, head of the EU's Executive Commission, urged the United States to step aside as primary mediator and make room for a broad alliance of nations -- including the EU, the Russians and moderate Arab nations -- to mediate a comprehensive peace deal for the region.
"It is clear (American) mediation efforts have failed and we need new mediation" to avoid an all-out regional war, Prodi told reporters in Brussels, Belgium, on Wednesday.
At the Spanish Embassy in Tel Aviv, diplomat Diego Ruiz Alonzo said tentative steps were taken to arrange meetings with other Palestinian officials. But Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said he and his colleagues decided that if Arafat were not allowed to meet foreign mediators, then neither would other Palestinian officials.
"If this delegation fails to get permission to meet Arafat, they will meet no Palestinians," Erekat said.