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Bush Endorses Sharon’s Steps To End Israeli Military Assault

By Peter Slevin and Mike Allen

President Bush strongly endorsed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a “man of peace” Thursday, crediting him with taking satisfactory steps to end Israel’s three-week-old military assault despite Sharon’s rejection of the president’s demand for an immediate withdrawal from Palestinian cities.

Sounding strikingly a conciliatory just two weeks after he declared that “enough is enough,” Bush said he understood why Israeli forces were laying siege to the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has his headquarters. He said the United States would demand that Arafat deliver results to match his recent condemnation of terrorism.

“Israel started withdrawing quickly after our call from smaller cities on the West Bank. History will show that they’ve responded,” Bush said in greeting Secretary of State Colin Powell, who returned early Thursday from a 10-day Middle East mission. “And as the prime minister said, he gave me a timetable and he’s met the timetable.”

White House officials later insisted that Bush did not intend to tip the scales for Israel. A senior adviser said the president continues to insist that Israelis and Palestinians alike must take steps to end the conflict.

But with Israeli tanks and troops continuing to enforce a tight cordon around the West Bank’s major cities, the president’s remarks risked further inflaming Arab opinion a week before he entertains Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah at his Crawford, Texas, ranch.

“When I hear the president saying that Sharon is a man of peace after he has destroyed our way of life, and after the Jenin refugee camp, I don’t know if this is not a reward for Israeli terrorism against the Palestinian people,” said Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian negotiator.

“And when he says history will prove that Sharon is withdrawing,” Erekat continued, “all I can say is that President Bush is as wrong as wrong can be.”