The Israeli forces moved back into Ramallah as a reprisal for a suicide car bombing the previous day which killed 16 Israelis, most of them off-duty soldiers, in the northern Israeli town of Meggido. The Islamic Jihad group claimed responsibility for the bombing. However, Israel has said that it holds the Palestinian Authority (PA) responsible for all attacks originating in its territory. Six buildings were reported to have been destroyed in Arafat’s compound during the incursion.

The latest flare-up came as the US and Arab states discussed approaches to a political settlement. The US has indicated that it wants to convene an international conference on the Middle East, probably in Turkey, by the end of the summer. The US and Israel have been concentrating on security questions and reforms to the PA as the agenda for the conference is debated. Arab states have been placing the emphasis on the need for a timetable to achieve the establishment of a Palestinian state.

President Mubarak of Egypt arrived in Washington on 6 June to present his plan for a swift move to declare a Palestinian state, with negotiations on the status of Jerusalem and the refugee question to follow. The Egyptian plan is said to call for Israel to complete a withdrawal of its forces to the pre-1967 borders on the West Bank and Gaza Strip within three-four years. Egypt’s intelligence chief, Omar Sulaiman, is also reported to have been closely involved in talks about reorganising the Palestinian security services.

The US has so far shown no inclination to adopt the Arab approach of pushing for an early resolution. ‘I do not know where it is coming from that the US is going to table a plan,’ a senior administration official said at a 5 June press briefing in Washington. ‘If someone is saying that the US is about to lay down a detailed plan, let me put it this way: I would like to know what it is.’

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was scheduled to arrive in Washington after Mubarak’s visit, has made clear that he favours a lengthy interim period before any final settlement is discussed. He has also ruled out negotiating with Arafat.

The US has continued to recognise that Arafat is the titular head of the PA. However, administration officials have also repeatedly criticised Arafat’s leadership, and suggested that other Palestinian figures should take a more prominent role in peace and security discussions.

‘Yasser Arafat has never played the role of someone who could be trusted or who was effective,’ said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer on 5 June. ‘Yasser Arafat has yet to earn the president’s trust.’