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Jerrold Kessel: U.S. pressures Israel

CNN's Jerrold Kessel
CNN's Jerrold Kessel

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(CNN) -- Israeli tanks and troops appeared to be pulling back from Yasser Arafat's compound in the West Bank on Sunday morning, after Israel's top security officials agreed to ease the military's grip on the Palestinian leader's Ramallah headquarters.

Israel's decision came after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon received a personal message from U.S. President George Bush in recent days, asking the Israeli leader to pull his forces back immediately from Arafat's compound.

CNN's Jerrold Kessel reported the latest Sunday from Jerusalem.

KESSEL: The Israeli tanks and troops who have been installed and besieging Yasser Arafat in his Muqata'a headquarters in the town of Ramallah are going to be withdrawn forthwith, according to a decision taken by a special Cabinet forum of Ariel Sharon's government this morning.

Whether the redeployment of the Israeli tanks and troops really amounts to a total ending of the siege of Mr. Arafat's headquarters or merely an easing of that siege remains to be seen. But what is already absolutely clear is that this Israeli decision was the result of U.S. pressure.

The headline in the leading Israeli newspaper this morning, before the decision by the Cabinet, says "President Bush, in a message to Sharon: You are disturbing us." And the report goes on to say -- and this has been confirmed to us, that this was in fact the gist of the message from the United States to Israel -- that that disturbance must end forthwith.

So the Israelis are about to pull their troops out of the Ramallah headquarters of Yasser Arafat. And of course the "disturbance" refers to the fact that the United States believes that Israel -- by focusing attention in this way on Yasser Arafat, getting the pressure on Israel to desist from this -- is deflecting the United States from its attention in what it wants to do and what it plans to do with regard to Iraq.

And the Israelis, why they say they will withdraw their troops -- in a way, perhaps, this is only a face-saving statement -- but they say they'll be withdrawn in a way that they will be in a position to monitor what happens to the people who they regard as terrorists, who they say are wanted by them in that headquarters with Yasser Arafat.

If they come out, they will be arrested. They are, clearly, in that Israeli statement acknowledging another basic and broader interest -- what they call enhancing a strategic alliance with the United States and that Israel will do everything it can to enhance that and to support the United States in its war on terror and in its war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

So, a change in the Israeli position under pressure from the United States. The Palestinians, however, say they fear this is only a sham and it will amount to a cosmetic pressure -- the Israelis will simply withdraw their tanks outside the headquarters and will maintain the siege on Yasser Arafat.

It remains to be seen whether they will do that, and whether that will be enough -- if it's what they do -- for the United States, or whether there will be further pressure on Mr. Sharon's government.

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