Ramallah Pact Marks First Sign of Progress

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will visit Washington next week as part of a deal negotiated by President Bush over the weekend that resulted in the end of the monthlong Israeli siege around Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Bush spoke with Sharon several times over the weekend before both sides agreed on the president's proposal to end the standoff in exchange for U.S. support for Israel during its heated talks with the United Nations over a U.N. fact-finding mission into Jenin to investigate charges that Israel carried out a massacre at the Palestinian refugee camp there.

On Monday, the White House said Bush applauded the Israelis and Palestinians for accepting his proposal to end the siege at Arafat's headquarters.

"The president is pleased with the action over the weekend and pleased with the initial follow-through but it's going to have to be closely monitored," said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.  "Nothing in the Middle East is easy. Nothing stays as hopeful as you'd like it to be for long."

On Tuesday, Arafat will have full freedom to move around without restrictions. American and British monitors are also making sure that six Palestinian terrorists inside the compound that are wanted for assassinating Israel's tourism minister remain in custody when the Israelis pull out of Ramallah.

Bush is also hoping the standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem will be resolved.

"In terms of Bethlehem, I believe we're making good progress toward ending that part of the Israeli incursion," Bush said Sunday.

On Monday, a deal was crystallizing over Bethlehem that would allow the gunmen wanted by Israel as terror suspects a choice of exile or prosecution by Israel, according to a well-placed Israeli diplomat.  Israel also would reserve the right to return its military forces to the city if another terror attack occurs.

Palestinian officials disputed that a deal was near completion.

"These are unbased rumors," Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser, a Palestinian negotiator, said.

The president said the Ramallah agreement does not clear Arafat from his other responsibilities. Bush said the Palestinian leader now has to prove himself by stepping up to the plate and stopping terrorist attacks.

"One of the things Chairman Arafat must do is condemn and thwart terrorist activities. It's important he do so. Again, I keep saying this, and it's so important for all of us involved in this process to recognize there are clear responsibilities and his responsibility is just what I said, to renounce, to help detect, and stop terrorist killings."

Before dawn on Monday, however, dozens of Israeli tanks and armored vehicles began moving into the West Bank city of Hebron, witnesses reported.

The Israeli troops appeared to be concentrating on two specific areas, the witnesses said, and it was not immediately clear if the incursion marked a full-scale invasion of the Palestinian city.

Bush was working on the "quiet diplomacy" along with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah, with whom the president met on his ranch Thursday, and who offered specific ideas on how to advance the peace process. Abdullah and his entourage remained in Houston until Sunday, longer than expected, to discuss a peace plan, and dispatch negotiators to engage in any diplomatic entreaties to Arafat.

Bush and Abdullah failed Thursday to resolve differences on the eight-point peace plan Abdullah brought to their five-hour talks.

On Sunday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said Bush and Abdullah discussed the Ramallah agreement during a 10-minute phone conversation that morning and agreed it "would be the first step toward the political negotiation that would lead to a comprehensive and just peace in the area."

"We hope that all sides will see the wisdom and urgency of speedy movement toward peace," said al-Faisal.

Throughout the negotiations, Secretary of State Colin Powell talked with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, European Union foreign policy and security chief Javier Solana and Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique, whose country holds the European Union presidency.

He also spoke with Arafat, according to Fleischer and Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a senior aide to Arafat who is with him inside his Ramallah headquarters.

Powell and Arafat discussed all of the efforts Americans, Europeans, Russians and others are making to find a breakthrough and, Abu Rdeneh said, both men stressed the importance of an immediate, comprehensive Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories as being key to stability and security in the region.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.