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U.S. Says Ousting of Arafat Could Be Counterproductive

By Douglas Jehl

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

Responding to Israel’s threat to expel Yasser Arafat, the Bush administration said again on Thursday that ousting the Palestinian leader would “not be helpful” and could be counterproductive.

The State Department spokesman, Richard A. Boucher, said that the expulsion of Arafat would “only give him another stage to play on.” But Boucher also called again on Arafat to cede control over Palestinian security agencies to the designated prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, something the Palestinian leader has been unwilling to do.

A senior State Department official said on Thursday night that the Israeli move had come despite clear American opposition. The official said that John S. Wolf, the American special envoy to the region, and Daniel C. Kurtzer, the American ambassador to Israel, would now be meeting with Israeli officials to assess “exactly what their intentions are.”

The national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, was understood to have been in contact with senior Israeli officials in recent days, including a telephone conversation in advance of today’s security cabinet meeting. Rice was said to have expressed the Bush administration’s concern about any expulsion order.

But a State Department official said it was unclear whether the administration’s concerns would prompt a direct protest from President Bush to the Israeli leader, Ariel Sharon, which he called “the only phone call that’s going to carry any weight.

Administration officials said Israeli officials had assured them that the call by the Israeli cabinet for Arafat’s expulsion was intended to push his hand and that it was not binding. They said they did not expect Israel to take any immediate action.

But 15 months after the Bush administration joined Israel in declaring Arafat irrelevant, the tough new Israeli stance posed a fresh test for an administration. While it has refused to deal with the Palestinian leader, the Bush team has said that forcing Arafat to leave would cause more harm than good.

“We don’t have a brief for him, but at the same time, we don’t believe that dealing with Mr. Arafat in that fashion or through expulsion is going to be helpful at all to the situation,” Boucher said on Thursday in outlining the American position.

Still, in the hours after Israel’s security cabinet announced the decision, Bush administration officials said they knew of no attempts by Bush, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, or other senior officials to win an Israeli change of heart. The officials said they knew of no high-level discussions about a revamping of the so-called road map, the path that the United States, Israel and the Palestinians all still publicly embrace as the best way toward peace, even in the face of a sharp renewal of violence.

Shimon Peres, the former Israeli prime minister, met with Powell in Washington on Thursday, and he also spoke out against the threatened expulsion. “I think it will be a mistake,” said Peres, whose Labor Party lost power in 1996 to the Likud Party, which is now headed by Sharon. “Arafat out of the country will be more bitter and more negative.”