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Wednesday, 20 March, 2002, 01:17 GMT
Cheney offers olive branch to Arafat
Israeli soldiers quarrel with Palestinians at Beit Ummar
Arafat is under pressure to enforce a ceasefire
United States Vice-President Dick Cheney has said he is prepared to meet Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat - if the Palestinians take steps to halt attacks against Israel.

I told the vice-president that the implementation of the Tenet agreement will enable Arafat to go outside the Palestinian territories

Israeli PM Ariel Sharon

Speaking after talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Mr Cheney said he expected Mr Arafat to fully comply with a truce deal brokered last June by CIA director George Tenet.

The US vice-president said: "I cannot emphasise enough how important it will be for Chairman Arafat to take the steps to get the ceasefire started."

The Palestinian Authority said on Tuedsay night it was "fully ready" to begin implementing the Tenet plan and US recommendations aimed at paving the way for a return to peace talks with Israel, the official Palestinian news agency WAFA reported.

Earlier, Mr Sharon said he would consider allowing the Palestinian leader to attend an Arab summit in Beirut at the end of the month - but held out the prospect of barring Mr Arafat's return.

Israel imposed travel restrictions on Mr Arafat last December to pressure him into arresting militants suspected of assassinating Israel's tourism minister.

Israeli and Palestinian officials said a ceasefire to end nearly 18 months of violence could begin after a meeting between their security chiefs chaired by US Middle East peace envoy Anthony Zinni scheduled for Wednesday.

US incentive

The US vice-president said Mr Zinni would judge whether the Palestinian leader had met the conditions for a meeting, which could take place as early as next week.

Such a meeting would make Mr Cheney the most senior figure in the current US administration to hold talks with Mr Arafat.

US peace envoy Anthony Zinni and Yasser Arafat
Zinni will judge whether Arafat merits a meeting with Cheney

The vice-president said the US would remain "actively engaged" in helping to bring about a ceasefire.

The BBC's Tom Carver, who is travelling with Mr Cheney, says that the vice-president has changed tack - having previously insisted that there was no need for him to meet Mr Arafat.

He is holding out the idea of a high-profile mini-summit as an incentive for the Palestinian leader to rein in his militants, our correspondent says.

Nabil Abu Rudeina, a top aide to Mr Arafat, said Mr Cheney's proposal for a meeting with the Palestinian leader was "a step in the right direction".

Sharon pledge

Mr Sharon said if Mr Arafat observed a truce, Israel would "assume... that he can get to Beirut" for the summit on 27 March.

The only solution is to merge the Israelis and Palestinians into one secular state

Shawn, United States
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However, the Israeli prime minister suggested the Palestinian leader might not be allowed back if there were "terrible terrorist attacks" in Israel during his absence, or if he delivered a "speech of incitement" at the meeting.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat rejected Mr Sharon's conditions, saying the Israeli leader "cannot put an obstacle on the movement of Arafat and cannot dictate to us what we should say or not say".

Israeli pullout

The Israeli army said earlier that it had withdrawn fully from the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip - areas it moved into earlier this month to hunt for Palestinian militants.

Palestinian security officials claimed Israeli troops were still in Palestinian areas in the north of the Gaza Strip.

As the push for a ceasfefire gathered momentum, Islamic militant group Hamas said two of its members had shot dead an Israeli soldier and wounded three others at an Israeli army post in the northern Jordan Valley earlier in the day.

The two attackers were also killed.

The BBC's Orla Guerin
"Israel gave Dick Cheney a warm welcome"
Israeli Government advisor Zalman Shoval
"Israel's purpose all along was to reach a ceasefire"
Palestinian spokesman Marwan Kanafani
"We hope the meeting will take place soon"
See also:

18 Mar 02 | Middle East
Annan denounces Israel's offensive
18 Mar 02 | Middle East
Israelis sceptical about US diplomacy
16 Mar 02 | Middle East
Israel's stay-at-home culture
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