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Mideast Cease-Fire Agreement May Be Near

Upon his arrival, Cheney said the U.S. remains committed to ending nearly 18 months of violence and achieving a permanent peace deal under which a Jewish and a Palestinian state would exist side-by-side.

“To realize that vision [of the states co-existing], the Israeli people must have confidence that their existence as a Jewish state living within secure borders is accepted by all, first and foremost by Israel’s neighbors in the region,” Cheney said at a welcoming ceremony hosted by Sharon.

“For that reason we continue to call upon Chairman Arafat to live up to his commitment, to renounce once and for all the use of violence as a political weapon, and to exert a 100 percent effort to stamp out terrorism,” he said.

Cheney also stressed the need to improve the harsh economic conditions many Palestinians face.

“I will be talking to Prime Minister Sharon about the steps that Israel can take to alleviate the devastating economic hardship being experienced by innocent Palestinian men, women and children,” he said.

As Cheney arrived, reports indicated Israel would pull all of its troops out of the recently occupied Palestinian areas.

“Israeli forces in the field will get instructions to be ready to withdraw tonight if the Palestinians agree to take security control over these areas,” an Israeli security source told Reuters. “The Palestinians must show up tonight to take control.”

The pullout of Israeli forces has been the key condition for Palestinians to endorse a truce in the fighting.

Some 20,000 Israeli soldiers took part in two major offensives over the last two weeks to occupy land and search for so-called “terrorist infrastructure” in the Palestinian controlled regions. Tanks remain in and around Bethlehem and in about 20 percent of Gaza.

Despite ongoing violence in the region, a senior Israeli official said he still believed a cease-fire may be signed in the next two days.

“The declaration of a cease-fire can be achieved within 48 hours,” Israel Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Israeli television. “The problem is what will happen after a declaration of a cease-fire.”

The possible breakthrough comes as international criticism of Israel continues to mount. On Monday, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan called Israel’s recent offensive essentially “all-out conventional warfare” and criticized the Jewish state for its heavy bombing strikes.

“Judging from the means and methods employed by the Israel Defense Force — F-16 fighter bombers, helicopter and naval gunships, missiles and bombs of heavy tonnage — the fighting has come to resemble all-out conventional warfare,” he said. “Israel is fully entitled to defend itself against terror, but this right does not discharge it of its obligation to respect the fundamental principles and rules of international law.”

The diplomatic efforts come after another violent, but less deadly, weekend.

On Sunday, an 18-year-old woman was killed and six other injured when a Palestinian gunman opened fire at a busy intersection. Police killed the 25-year-old attacker. According to sources, the shooter — a member of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement — acted on his own and was not authorized to carry out the attack.

Later that day, a Palestinian suicide bomber detonated his explosives near a bus in east Jerusalem. The blast killed the bomber and slightly wounded a few passengers on the bus.

The militant group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in response to “the enemy’s continuing crimes against our unarmed Palestinian people.”

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