Sharon said in a television interview, ”Unfortunately the conditions are not yet ripe for Chairman Arafat’s departure for Beirut.”
Sharon said he would allow Arafat to leave his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah only if Arafat declared a cease-fire and the U.S. recognized Israel’s right to lock Arafat out of the country if terrorist attacks occur during his absence.
Late Tuesday, Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said Arafat decided not to comply with Israel’s demands and skip the summit.
“President Arafat has consulted with his leadership and has studied the issue carefully. He has decided not to allow Israel to pressure the Palestinian negotiators into submitting to Israeli conditions, and so he decided not to go to the summit,” Rabbo said.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has also said he would not attend the conference.
The U.S. had pressed Israel to allow Arafat to attend the Arab League summit that starts Wednesday in neighboring Lebanon. Officials had hoped Arafat could build Arab support for a Saudi-proposed Mideast peace plan.
The plan offers Israel normal diplomatic relations with its Arab neighbors in return for Israel’s withdrawal from all territories it captured in the 1967 war, including the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and east Jerusalem. It also calls for the creation of an independent Palestinian state and a “just solution” for the estimated 3.6 million Palestinian refugees.
President Bush today encouraged the summit’s participants to consider the Saudi plan despite Arafat’s absence.
“The president believes no matter what decisions are made vis-a-vis attendance, this should not be a lost opportunity for those who are there,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters. “They should still focus on how to create peace in the Middle East, regardless of anything involving attendance.”
Also on Tuesday, the Israeli military said two observers from an international force were shot and killed in Hebron. An official with the force said the men were Turkish and Swiss. Israel’s military said Palestinian gunmen were behind the attack, but Turkish Ambassador Ahmet Uzumcu told the Associated Press “it is still not clear who opened fire.”
A third observer was slightly wounded in the attack.
The observers were part of a team of unarmed officials authorized under a 1997 agreement to divide the city into Israeli and Palestinian zones.