The United States vetoed a United Nations resolution last night that demanded Israel refrain from deporting the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, from the West Bank.
The text, tabled by Syria, was backed by 11 members of the Security Council. The US was alone in opposing it, complaining that it failed to condemn Palestinian terror groups that have committed bombings in Israel. Three countries abstained from the vote Britain, Bulgaria and Germany.
Palestinian officials warned afterwards that Israel might take the resolution's demise as a "licence to kill" Mr Arafat. The vote came after hours of tense debate inside the Security Council. Last-minute efforts by Britain, which currently holds the presidency of the council, to ease American concerns and prevent the use of a veto, did not succeed.
On Monday, the council held a special open session to debate the crisis in the Middle East. By the time it was over, 40 governments had condemned a decision taken by the Israeli Cabinet last Thursday to seek to "remove" Mr Arafat from his position as Palestinian leader.
The reaction from the Palestinian Authority was swift. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, said: "It's a black day for the United Nations and for international law. I hope that Israel will not interpret the resolution as a license to kill President Arafat."
After the vote, the US ambassador, John Negroponte, said that Washington did not support the new Israeli stance. However, he said that he had blocked the resolution because it failed to name groups such as Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, which has claimed credit for numerous suicide bombings. He said: "The Palestinian Authority must take action to remove the threat of terrorist groups."
Fayssal Mekdad, the Syrian ambassador to the UN who had been pressing for a resolution to protest against Israel's policy since last week, decried the outcome. He said that the text had been "highly balanced", saying most of the language came from previous resolutions that had been adopted by the council.
"The fact that the US delegation used its veto is something extremely regrettable," he said. "It only complicates a situation in the Middle East that is already very complicated."
Israel, meanwhile, moved quickly to dismiss an offer from Jibril Rajoub, Mr Arafat's national security adviser, for a new ceasefire. Israeli officials brushed the offer aside as "deception," demanding instead that the Palestinian Authority crack down on militant groups.
Mr Arafat struck a conciliatory tone before about 2,500 supporters outside his besieged headquarters in the West Bank. But he stopped short of explicitly endorsing the ceasefire proposal. "We say to the peace supporters in Israel that we extend our hand to you to revive peace," he said.
Israel also rejected reports that the US was preparing to deduct from loan guarantees money that the Israeli government plans to spend on new settlements and on building a West Bank security fence to separate Palestinian and Israeli sectors. The US has vowed this year to give the country loan guarantees of $9bn (£5.6bn). Israeli officials said that the first instalment would not be affected by any deductions.
The loan package was being discussed as John Snow, the US Treasury Secretary, visited Israel. Before a meeting with Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister, Mr Snow reiterated American's commitment to assist Israel in searching for peace. "The United States wants to be supportive and helpful to see that we do move down that road to peace," he said.
The latest peace offer from the Palestinians drew a cool response from the Israeli government. "This is not the type of ceasefire which may entice us to change our policy," Yosef Lapid, the Israeli Justice Minister, said.Reuse content