President Bush provided three key Arab leaders with evidence Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority was involved in trying to smuggle 50 tons of weapons to the Palestinians, a senior administration official said yesterday.
The weapons were intercepted by Israeli commandos in the Red Sea, and Israeli security officials informed the United States the arms were designed to be used in terror raids against Israeli civilians.
Mr. Bush provided the evidence in letters to the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, all considered centrist Arab nations with close ties to the United States, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He also asked the leaders’ help in persuading Mr. Arafat, the Palestinian leader, to make more arrests connected to the smuggling and to combat terrorism generally. The official didn’t describe the evidence.
The Palestinian Authority, under U.S. urging, has detained several suspects. But State Department spokesman Richard Boucher repeated yesterday that Mr. Arafat had neither provided an explanation of the smuggling nor arrested the key figures.
Israel’s account, given to the administration by top security officials who came to Washington recently, had Mr. Arafat directly involved and said Iran supplied the weapons and the ship was loaded at an Iranian port.
While Mr. Arafat has denied any role, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell publicly has demanded an explanation from him. At the same time, Mr. Powell has said he has seen no evidence against the Palestinian leader.
The dispatch of Mr. Bush’s letter, first reported yesterday evening by CBS News, surfaced as the administration again turned up the heat on Mr. Arafat.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the president understands why Israel has confined Mr. Arafat to his West Bank headquarters.
Mr. Fleischer demanded that Mr. Arafat eliminate terrorism, which he said posed “a threat not only to Israel, but also to Arafat.”
“The president understands the reason that Israel has taken the action that it takes, and it is up to Chairman Arafat to demonstrate the leadership to combat terrorism,” Mr. Fleischer said.
Mr. Bush discussed the volatile Middle East with his senior security advisers at the White House. Closing the Palestinian office in Washington reportedly was discussed, but no decision was made.
A decision depends largely on what Mr. Arafat does about combating terrorism, a senior U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. No option, including closing the Washington office, has been ruled out, the official said.
Mr. Arafat has been under virtual house arrest on the West Bank for nearly two months. From his office window in Ramallah, he can peer out at Israeli soldiers who are posted down the street.
In the town, a member of the Palestinian intelligence service, Riyad Sadi, 26, was killed in a clash with Israeli forces yesterday.
Four other Palestinians also were killed, including a senior Hamas official killed in an Israeli helicopter attack in the Gaza Strip.