While fervently reiterating his call for Israel to withdraw its troops from the West Bank, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat told Fox News on Sunday that he may agree to an Israeli proposal for a regional peace conference, if the United States endorsed the idea.
In a phone call to the Fox News Channel Sunday evening from his besieged Ramallah headquarters, Arafat told Fox News' Rita Cosby he was ready to accept the idea discussed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Secretary of State Colin Powell in Tel Aviv Sunday afternoon of a multi-national Middle East peace conference.
"Any initiative which has been declared by his (unintelligible) President Bush I will accept it to achieve [a] day of peace in the land of peace in the terror center," Arafat said.
"I have declared all of my support to the initiative for peace, which has been declared by President Bush, by the committee of the four, by the Security Council, by Madrid call for (unintelligible) land for peace," he said.
Along with floating his possible agreement to the peace conference, Arafat renewed his call for an Israeli withdrawal.
"I am ready for immediate conference but at the same time immediate withdrawal [of Israeli forces] ... we are now the only people under occupation ... we can't accept this," he said.
After meeting with Arafat on Sunday morning, Powell shuttled back to Israel for the meeting in Tel Aviv, and pressed Sharon for a complete pullback, a U.S. official said.
It was at this meeting that Sharon renewed his proposal for the international peace conference among Israel and Arab states including Saudi Arabia, Syria and Lebanon, and the Palestinians, but not Arafat.
Sharon said the United States would lead the conference, and "I imagine that within a short time a conference of this sort will convene to debate the diplomatic arrangements in the Middle East."
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the proposal was an attempt to "turn the clock backward."
A senior U.S. official said the idea was discussed "as part of a way to move forward politically," but more talks were needed.
At his meeting with Powell, Arafat, 72, appeared in good health at his rocket-scarred headquarters that is surrounded by Israeli tanks and troops. Arafat has been under pressure that is "unreal for an old man like him," said Zeid Abu Shawish, a Palestinian doctor in the compound.
Powell was driven to the besieged compound in a motorcade of armored-plated SUVs, shielded by U.S. security personnel with submachine guns.
The headquarters showed the effects of Israeli bombardment. A gaping hole marred the facade and the walls were blackened with bullet marks.
A senior aide, Saeb Erekat, said Arafat stood by his commitments, including an end to violence. But, Erekat said after the three-hour meeting, that meant "once the Israelis complete the withdrawal we will, as Palestinians, then carry out our obligations."
Arafat complained bitterly and extensively to Powell about Israel's military thrust into Palestinian-held towns and villages, and especially its actions in Jenin and a refugee camp in the town.
President Bush has demanded a pullback right away, but Sharon refused to provide a timetable when he saw Powell on Friday in Jerusalem. They met again briefly Sunday night in Tel Aviv.
Powell, in a short statement to reporters, called his meeting with Arafat useful and constructive.
A senior U.S. official said Powell's "clear message" to Arafat in a 45-minute presentation was "the bombings have to stop, that it was a major barrier" to progress toward a security agreement or on negotiations that Powell has said should lead to establishment of a Palestinian state.
Powell and Arafat directed top aides to meet Monday on "a variety of ideas." He provided no details.
Arafat saw Powell to the door, and they shook hands, but Arafat did not emerge. "Arafat did not come out for security reasons," Erekat said.
Gesturing to the building next door, where Israeli soldiers peered out of half-open windows, Erekat said, "You see the Israeli snipers all around. We are not going to take that risk."
But the senior U.S. official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said "they did not complain about the personal situation."
Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmed Quriea, who attended the meeting around a second-floor dining room table, told The Associated Press: "We told Secretary Powell that we shall not discuss any subject before Israel pulls out" from towns and villages occupied since March 29.
"We told him that it's time to speak about a Palestinian state along the lines" that existed before Israel occupied land seized during the 1967 Mideast war, the Palestinian official said.
He said Arafat and Powell were expected to meet again Tuesday.
A foreign policy adviser to Sharon said Israel has "already made substantial progress in heeding to the president's request, and we pulled out of substantial areas."
"On the other hand, we have not seen any movement from the Palestinians in what they were requested to do," including accepting a meaningful cease-fire and cooperating on security, Danny Ayalon said on ABC's "This Week."
Powell will make briefs stops Monday in Lebanon and Syria -- which is in effective control of Lebanon -- to express his concern about the "urgent and serious" cross-border attacks on Israel from southern Lebanon, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
Powell has those countries to curb the guerrillas, and asked intermediaries to appeal to Iran, which arms the group the State Department considers a terrorist organization.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov volunteered to intercede, as well, when he saw Powell in Spain on Wednesday.
Initially, Powell was expected to fly home Tuesday, but preparations are under way for a longer stay in the region.
The president did not speak directly to Powell, but was briefed on his Mideast peacemaking efforts by his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. White House officials reported no Bush calls to world leaders, but said he was monitoring Powell's trip.
U.S. officials want Arafat to use the "bully pulpit of his leadership as required and called upon by our president to bring clearly home to his people that violence to accomplish political end is not going to be effective," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said in Washington.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.