Sharon visiting U.S. to build ties

Israeli leader brings message of Mideast security, anti-terror

Arafat termed obstacle

Premier is expected to resist pressure to make concessions

March 19, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrives in Washington today hoping to convince President Bush that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat - more than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - represents a key source of instability in the Middle East.

Sharon will resist any pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians solely to help the United States appease Arabs and win support for a new campaign against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Israeli officials say.

The right-wing leader set off yesterday on his first trip to the United States as prime minister, apparently confident that he had laid groundwork that would enable him to avoid major disagreements with the American president despite continuing Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.

Once viewed by many in Washington as a belligerent hard-liner, Sharon, 73, has worked hard at softening his image, getting a major assist from Nobel peace laureate Shimon Peres and other members of the center-left Labor Party who have joined his government.

Israeli officials believe Sharon made a more favorable impression than did Arafat during Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's recent swing through the region. Arafat was even less flexible than his subordinates had led State Department officials to expect, while Sharon appeared relatively open-minded and pragmatic, they say.

Sharon hopes to build on that by offering what Israelis say is strong evidence that Arafat's security forces, including Force 17, his presidential guard, have participated in terrorist plots and attacks on Israelis.

"Generally, people are aware of what their own presidential guard is doing," said Dore Gold, the former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations who is accompanying Sharon.

The prime minister will convey "an urgent message on the need to fight and contain the spread of terrorism, actively," said Sharon adviser Raanan Gissin. "If there's one destabilizing factor in the Middle East, it's the continuation of [acts of] instigated violence."

The argument that Arafat is trying to stir up regional trouble may strike a chord among some Washington veterans, who recall how his Palestine Liberation Organization destabilized Jordan and Lebanon decades ago.

But Palestinians want Washington to keep Sharon's past in mind. Bush administration officials should study the record of Sharon's "deception" in preparing for the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, said Saman Khoury, director of the Palestine Media Center in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

"Some officials believe Sharon will use similar methods" with the Bush administration, Khoury said. "Israelis are the side who are killing people and harming them on a daily basis, imposing a siege and closing on 3 million Palestinians."

Sharon won't urge specific U.S. actions against Arafat, said adviser Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington. But Israeli officials clearly hope that Sharon's arguments will make Americans more sympathetic to his carrot-and-stick tactics in dealing with the Palestinians.

Emphasizing the need to strengthen security for Israelis and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, the Sharon government kept tight pressure this week on towns where the most violent Palestinian activists are said to operate.

At the same time, Israel reopened some major roads in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to ease movement by the Palestinians, and eased restrictions on commerce and fishing off the Gaza coast. Israel continued to hold on to customs and tax revenue due the Palestinian Authority.

"If there's progress on security, we can move forward on economics," Shoval said. "If there's long-term quiet, we come to the PA and say, `Let's create contiguity between areas [under Palestinian control].'" After that, if quiet continues, there could be resumption of peace talks, he said.

Israeli and Palestinian officials met during the weekend to look for ways to improve security, but no results were reported.

Israeli officials say they are heartened that the Bush administration has abandoned former President Bill Clinton's central preoccupation with solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which periodically brought pressure on Israel to make concessions.

They believe that Powell's regional approach offers more opportunity for seeing eye to eye on terrorism, Iraq's drive to acquire weapons of mass destruction and Iran's arms buildup.

But the United States and Israel may be unable to avoid a rift over Iraq. The Bush administration believes new pressure must be brought against the Iraqi regime to prevent its acquiring weapons of mass destruction. To re-create its gulf war coalition, the Bush administration needs the support of moderate Arab governments, including those of Egypt and the Persian Gulf states. This is undermined by a perception in Arab countries of excessive U.S. support for Israel.

During Powell's recent trip, he was told by Arab leaders that the United States must be seen as trying to relieve Palestinian suffering.

"There's a contradiction here," said Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher. Already the United States stands almost alone in the United Nations Security Council in opposing some sort of U.N. force in the occupied territories.

Shoval said Israel would refuse to soften its policy toward the Palestinians to accommodate U.S. efforts: "Israel is not going to pay the price in order to re-create this coalition."

Sharon is to meet today with Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and address the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the main pro-Israel lobbying group, tonight.

Tomorrow, he will meet with Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and congressional leaders. He will meet Wednesday in New York with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Jewish leaders, and also go to Wall Street.

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