- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 27, 2001

From combined dispatches
The United States yesterday criticized Israel for barring Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from attending Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem this year and raised its concerns about the decision with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Cabinet.
"We regret the Israeli government's decision to deny Chairman Arafat permission to travel to Bethlehem to join the Christmas ceremony as he has in past years," said State Department deputy spokesman Philip Reeker.
Israel said over the weekend that Mr. Arafat could go to Bethlehem only if he jailed the militants responsible for the assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi in October. Israel says the killers are still in Ramallah.
Although Mr. Arafat vowed to get to Bethlehem even if he had to walk, he would have had to travel roads sealed in places by Israeli tanks and troops in the West Bank near his headquarters in Ramallah.
Palestinians said the presence of Mr. Arafat, a Muslim, who would normally attend the Christmas Eve midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, had served as a symbol of unity between Muslim and Christian Palestinians since 1995.
In a speech on Palestinian television and radio Monday evening, Mr. Arafat said, "Palestinians, I speak to you with a heart filled with grief because the unjust Israeli tanks, cement barriers and guns prevent me from participating with you in the annual celebrations."
Israel accuses Mr. Arafat of not acting "to dismantle Palestinian terror organizations for a series of suicide-bombing attacks on Israel."
The United States has repeatedly urged the Palestinian leader to take tougher action against militant groups that impede the Middle East peace process.
Russia joined the U.S. criticism yesterday, regretting Israel's decision not to allow Mr. Arafat's visit to Bethlehem.
"Religious issues should not be mixed up with politics," said Moscow's Middle East envoy, Andrei Vdovine. He said that he hoped Israel would take "reciprocal measures" after Mr. Arafat's call Dec. 16 for an end to the suicide attacks.
Meanwhile, Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer officially became the leader of the Labor Party yesterday, following a second vote, the party announced from its headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Mr. Ben Eliezer beat his rival, Parliament Speaker Avraham Burg, by a three-point margin. All votes had not yet been counted when the party made the announcement.
With 3,500 ballots cast from the 12,600 called to the polling stations, Israeli public television already had announced Mr. Ben Eliezer's victory, arguing that widespread abstaining by the Druze electorate, which supports Mr. Burg, would undoubtedly hand victory to the defense minister.

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