Powell Informs Israel About Opposition to Arafat Exile

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Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) assured a senior Palestinian official Friday that he had weighed in with Israel to back away from a threat to deport Yasser Arafat (search).

Before boarding his Air Force jet for a meeting in Switzerland on Iraq's future, Powell also telephoned Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom (search) to reinforce the message.

It was one of several calls Shalom received.

"In the early hours of this morning the phones rang from all over the world," he said in Jerusalem. "They're asking us to do nothing against Yasser Arafat. Has the world turned on its head?"

Israel considers the Palestinian leader a terrorist. In contrast to most other governments, the Bush administration has accused Arafat of being tainted by terror and corruption and ruled out dealing with him.

The United States has pulled its punches in public as for criticizing Israel is concerned, concentrating on the practical impact that exile might have on Arafat's public relations.

Besides, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said, "It would distract the parties from the task at hand."

Elsewhere, Israel was a target of widespread condemnation for its cabinet decision to authorize Arafat's removal. France warned that expelling Arafat would be an error. The Arab League (search) said Israel had in effect declared war on the peace process.

"It would be unwise to expel him," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said.

Countries expressing concern ranged from Switzerland to Pakistan. Italy, Russia, Germany and Britain also disapproved.

"We believe it would be a terrible mistake that would have serious consequences across the whole region," European Union spokesman Diego Ojeda said.

The Bush administration has avoided open criticism of Israel, saying mildly that expelling Arafat from the West Bank would not be helpful or constructive.

But Powell, in his calls to Nabil Shaath (search), the Palestinian foreign minister, and to Shalom made the point that he was registering the administration's opposition to exiling Arafat.

The public U.S. position was stated again Friday by the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, who told reporters en route to Georgia with President Bush, "It would not help matters. It would only serve to give him a broader stage."

McClellan volunteered also a reminder that Bush wants to see a Palestinian state established in two years on land now held by Israel.

"His views are that we need to get the parties back focused on moving forward," the spokesman said.

At the same time, McClellan said, "our focus needs to be on cracking down on terrorism," and all Palestinian security forces should be unified under the command of the new prime minister, Ahmed Qureia.

Powell also telephoned Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher and Javier Solana, senior EU diplomat, Ereli said.

According to Shaath, Powell told him the United States had pressed Israel to call off any immediate move to oust Arafat.

"Mr. Powell ... told me that the United States acted effectively yesterday to stop any Israeli measure," the Palestinian foreign minister said.