WASHINGTON – Switching gears, the Bush administration on Thursday went out of its way to shield Yasser Arafat from Israeli exile and affirmed it was dealing with him as leader of the Palestinian people.
As the beleaguered Arafat withstood another Israeli siege of his West Bank compound, American diplomats elicited assurances from Israeli authorities he would not be harmed in the incursion, itself a response to another deadly Palestinian bombing.
Only a day earlier, the White House questioned Arafat's trustworthiness and pledged to increase contacts with a new generation of Palestinian leaders who may be more willing to curb terrorism.
"In the president's eyes, Yasser Arafat has never played a role of someone who could be trusted or who was effective," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Wednesday.
But on Thursday, as Israeli troops shelled Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah, blew a hole in his bedroom wall and destroyed three buildings in the sprawling compound during a six-hour incursion, a White House spokesman said exiling Arafat would not help bring peace to the Middle East.
"I don't think exiling Arafat solves anything," Sean McCormack said. "The issue is building Palestinian institutions and, in the process, bringing the Palestinian people into the building of these institutions."
Arafat, himself, dismissed the possibility of exile Thursday.
"Expel me?" he said. "I will die here."
As Israeli troops rolled into the West Bank, the State Department received fresh confirmation from Israeli authorities that Arafat would not be hurt.
"Israel had previously made clear that it was not their intention to harm Chairman Arafat or to go after him directly," said department spokesman Richard Boucher. "As we were in touch with them during the operation, we reconfirmed, or they reconfirmed to us that that remained their intention -- not to harm Chairman Arafat directly, and indeed that's what happened."
At the same time, Boucher reaffirmed Arafat's status as the Palestinian with whom the United States -- and Israel -- must deal.
"Chairman Arafat is the leader of the Palestinian people," Boucher said, while repeating a monthslong U.S. admonition that "he needs to take the responsibilities of leadership, continue to signal clearly that violence and terror are not the way Palestinians can achieve their national aspirations."
Meanwhile, three U.S. officials said Israel had not notified the United States before its West Bank offensive, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak began a visit to Washington by having lunch with Vice President Dick Cheney at Blair House.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher urged Secretary of State Colin Powell to set out the agenda for talks Mubarak will have with President Bush at Camp David on Friday evening and Saturday morning.
Mubarak intends to press Bush to set a deadline for creation of a Palestinian state, for uprooting Jewish settlements on the West Bank and Gaza and for Israel to give up territory the Arabs lost in the 1967 Mideast war.
"It is a necessity to move quickly," Maher told reporters after seeing Powell. However, he said that while "there is interest" in Mubarak's views, he knew of no specific U.S. initiative.
A senior Bush administration official, talking to reporters on condition of anonymity, said the administration was trying to develop a "roadmap" for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
The official also said the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian demands to resettle millions of Palestinian refugees in Israel were issues that should be addressed in negotiations.