01/10/2002 - Updated 04:28 PM ET
By Matthew Kalman, USA TODAY
JERUSALEM — A congressional delegation to Israel and the Palestinian Authority cancelled a planned meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat scheduled for Thursday after examining "evidence beyond a reasonable doubt" of direct involvement by the Palestinian Authority in weapons smuggling and terrorism.
The move to cancel the meeting came hours before a senior U.S. official said there is substantial evidence that the Palestinian Authority was involved in an attempt to smuggle 50 tons of weapons to Gaza and that Arafat knew about the shipment. The remark came after Israeli intelligence officials briefed State Department officials on the smuggling operation. The boat carrying the weapons was intercepted and seized by Israeli commandos last Thursday.
Secretary of State Colin Powell phoned Arafat on Wednesday and stressed "the urgent need for a full explanation" of the smuggling attempt, which he called "deeply troubling," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
The U.S. representatives visiting Israel, who also were briefed by Israeli intelligence, said they had seen evidence of Arafat's personal involvement in the shipload of illegal weapons from Iran being smuggled into the Palestinian Authority.
A U.S. official in Israel said the State Department would reevaluate its relationship with the Palestinian Authority in light of the revelations about the arms shipment.
Representative Peter Deutsch (D-FL) told reporters at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem Wednesday that the Palestinian leader had gone back on the fundamental pledge of peace he made to Israel in the Oslo Accords, which provided the basis for U.S. engagement with the Palestine Liberation Organization, previously considered a terrorist organization.
"It is clear that the weapons were meant to be sent to the Palestinian Authority for their continuation of terrorism and violence," said Deutsch. "This incident presents a clear indication of Chairman Arafat's failure to act against terrorism."
Congressman Gary Ackerman (D — NY), a ranking member of the House Sub-Committee on the Middle East and South Asia, said the delegation had unanimously agreed to cancel their meeting with Arafat after receiving "a full intelligence briefing" from Israeli officials about the weapons haul, which included rockets, missiles, mines and 1.5 tons of sophisticated explosives.
The delegation said, "a meeting with the Palestinian leadership would send the wrong message about both Congress's views on terrorism and on the leadership of Chairman Arafat, in particular."
Ackerman said the representatives had seen "irrefutable facts that seemed to indicate beyond any reasonable doubt that the Palestinian Authority and Arafat personally were involved with the ship and the purchase of the weapons and the plan to transfer them to the Palestinian Authority."
The representatives' decision to boycott Arafat led to the collapse of their entire program in the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian Legislative Council Speaker Abu Ala and PLO Jerusalem leader Sari Nusseibeh both cancelled their planned meetings with the US delegation. The other members of the group are Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Barney Frank (D-MA).
"We do think the peace process is salvageable," said Ackerman. "We have just finished meeting with Prime Minister Sharon and we believe the prime minister is committed to the peace process."
But Ackerman warned, echoing Israel's recent declaration that Arafat was no longer relevant, "Unless Arafat gets back to the peace process he will have rendered himself insignificant and squandered all the good will that a peace prize winner would have had." He was referring to Arafat's Nobel Peace Prize, which he won jointly with assassinated Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin for their efforts to establish a peace process.
"Arafat's signature on the Oslo Accords seems to have been written with invisible ink," Ackerman said.
Contributing: Barbara Slavin in Washington