Sharon Presses Bush on ArafatBy Alan Sipress
THE WASHINGTON POST -- WASHINGTON
President Bush assured visiting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Thursday he would continue to press the Palestinian authority to crack down on terrorism but balked at the Israeli leader’s call for isolating PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.
Sharon’s visit comes at a time when the United States has all but adopted Israel’s view that the dominant problem in the Middle East is Palestinian violence and that peace talks can only resume after Arab militant groups are brought to heel.
Bush made clear his longstanding exasperation with Arafat, whose credibility in Washington hit a new low last month after Israeli commandos intercepted a ship seeking to smuggle 50 tons of arms into the Palestinian areas.
“I can’t be any more clear in my position, and that is that he must do everything in his power to fight terror,” Bush told reporters after the nearly hourlong meeting. “Obviously, we were at first surprised and then extremely disappointed when the Karine A showed up, loaded with weapons, weapons that could’ve only been intended for one thing, which was to terrorize.”
Sharon’s visit to the White House, his fourth since taking office a year ago, underscores the extent of Arafat’s estrangement from Washington. Once a frequent visitor during the Clinton administration, Bush has refused him an invitation.
But the president’s harsh rhetoric and diplomatic snubbing of Arafat fall short of making the Palestinian leader “irrelevant” as Sharon has sought. While the Bush administration wants Arafat to change his ways, Sharon wants to bypass him and seek out other Palestinian leaders who would act more vigorously to protect Israelis.
“I personally, myself and my government, regard Arafat as an obstacle to peace,” Sharon said. “Arafat has chosen a strategy of terror and formed a coalition of terror. Therefore, we believe that pressure should be put on Arafat in order, we hope, to have an alternative leadership in the future.”
State Department officials in recent days have noted several positive steps taken by Arafat’s security forces toward controlling violence, including arresting some militants and breaking up munitions factories. The Palestinian leader, meantime, sent a letter last week to Secretary of State Colin Powell via the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem acknowledging American concerns about the arms smuggling plot and promising to punish those Palestinians who were involved.