Israel Backs off from Arresting Hanan Ashrawi, After Bush Remark

President Bush is credited with thwarting any plans the Israeli authorities may have had to arrest Hanan Ashrawi, who was spokeswoman for the Palestinians at the Middle East peace talks in Madrid.

Israeli police said late last week that they had sufficient evidence to hold her for trial on charges of violating the Israeli law forbidding contacts with Palestine Liberation Organization representatives. But they have not acted.

Bush is said to have expressed concern about “the plight of Hanan Ashrawi” at the end of a meeting Friday with 23 prominent Arab Americans.

One of them, George Salem of the executive board of the Arab American Institute, reported that the president “shook my hand as he was leaving and said, ‘Please know that Hanan is on my mind and I’m paying very close attention to what is happening over there.’”

In Washington, State Department deputy spokesman Richard Boucher also expressed concern spokesman Richard Boucher also expressed concern Friday about media reports that the Israeli police had recommended Ashrawi’s prosecution.

The West Bank activist, who lectures at Bir Zeit University, gained global recognition for her eloquence in presenting the Palestinian case in Madrid.

Members of Israel’s far-right wing were furious after the police acted on a complaint against Ashrawi by Knesset member Elyakim Haetzni of the Tehiya party and then failed to follow through.

Science and Energy Minister Yuval Ne’eman, the Tehiya leader, complained that he found it hard to serve in a government which “does not enforce the law.”

IN ATTORNEY GENERAL’S HANDS

Responding to queries by Ne’eman, Police Minister Ronni Milo explained at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting that the material the police passed to the state prosecutor consisted of findings, not recommendations.

The role of the police is to investigate and present their findings to the proper legal authorities, Milo told the Cabinet.

Attorney General Yosef Harish has greater latitude. He can evaluate whether it is “in the public interest” to press charges against Ashrawi. He is entitled to consider the political implications and is even required to consult with the prime minister or any other minister, Milo said.

Harish announced Sunday he would consult on the matter with Justice Minister Dan Meridor.

Health Minister Ehud Olmert said at the close of the Cabinet session that he saw no point in taking action against Ashrawi for meeting with PLO representatives, inasmuch as she herself is a member of the PLO.

Before the Cabinet session began, about 30 members of the Israeli Women’s Peace Network met with Ashrawi in Ramallah to protest plans to arrest her. Ashrawi told them she was “touched” by President Bush’s comment that he was “thinking” about her.

The Israeli women at the meeting included Knesset member Shulamit Aloni of the Citizens Rights Movement, Professor Galya Golan of Hebrew University and author Yael Dayan.

(JTA correspondent Howard Rosenberg in Washington contributed to this report.)

NEXT STORY