Sharon heightens anti-Arafat rhetoric

Israeli premier calls him a regional threat

March 20, 2001|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - On the eve of a visit to the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pointedly accused Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat of returning to the old tactics of terrorism, personally backing anti-Israeli attacks and spreading trouble throughout the Middle East.

"Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority are returning to the belief that they can defeat Israel by means of armed struggle," Sharon said last night in a speech to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israel lobby. "Arafat is willing to destabilize the entire Middle East, including moderate Arab regimes, in order to achieve his goals."

Sharon's remarks came as new violence shook the region and two Jews died in Palestinian attacks - the first political killings of Israelis since Sharon assumed power this month.

In describing Palestinian attacks as a regional threat, Sharon apparently was bidding for support from President Bush, who has indicated a desire to take a broad approach to the Middle East instead of focusing on Israel's relationship with its neighbors.

"Regional security is eroding in the wider Middle East," Sharon said. "A new wave of international terrorism is on the rise from Afghanistan to Lebanon," backed largely, he added, by Iran and Iraq.

The Israeli leader also was apparently trying to remind U.S. and Arab leaders of disruptions caused by Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization decades ago, chiefly in Jordan and Lebanon. Sharon is new to the Israeli premiership, but not to the conflict. A seasoned general, he was the architect of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

In another nod to Bush, Sharon talked about ballistic missile threats from Iraq and Iran, and endorsed the ambitious White House plan to develop a missile defense.

"Missile defense is an absolute imperative for our countries today," Sharon said. "It is our hope that Israel's own experience in missile defense can help the U.S. and its allies in protecting their future security."

In showing that he is sensitive to U.S. interests beyond Israel, Sharon is trying hard to overcome the skepticism in Washington generated by his previous hard-line views, analysts said.

"Ariel Sharon just wants to be loved," said Jon Alterman, a Middle East specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "Sharon is very politically adept. He sometimes appears to stand for more than he actually stands for. He can have core principles and trade them off very quickly if he needs to.

"In many ways he is more of a politician than an ideologue."

Sharon's remarks followed a speech to AIPAC by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. The secretary told the lobbying group that the heart of Washington's Iraq policy will be rebuilding an international anti-Iraq coalition that must include moderate Arab states.

Powell's message seemed aimed at Sharon, who has repeatedly suggested that he will not make concessions to the Palestinians merely to improve Washington's efforts to enlist Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia against Iraq.

"President Bush has made it clear that a hallmark of our foreign policy will be the need to consult and work closely with friends and allies," Powell said. "Such collaboration is at the core of our policy with respect to Iraq. ... Our goal is to strengthen the international coalition which for a decade has helped to keep the peace in this important part of the world."

Powell emphasized Washington's enduring commitment to Israel. "The simple fact of the matter is, we believe that a secure Israel with internationally recognized borders remains a cornerstone of the United States' foreign policy."

But he said "other states in the region and beyond have a role to play in stabilizing the environment for Israelis and Palestinians." He mentioned the coming Washington visits of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah II of Jordan, adding: "We look forward to having the benefit of the perspectives of these good friends of the United States."

But Powell criticized Arab nations for withdrawing their ambassadors from Israel in the wake of Israeli-Palestinian violence of the past six months.

Sharon, who arrived Sunday night with a reputation for belligerent, right-wing views, made a whirlwind tour of the capital yesterday to seek U.S. backing.

Sharon met with Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, CIA Director George J. Tenet and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Today, he is scheduled to see Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and key members of Congress.

U.S. officials described the meetings as cordial and productive, and said Sharon promised to cease the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Washington is pressing Sharon to release millions of dollars due the Palestinian Authority and to ease blockades of Palestinian settlements.

"The Palestinian economy is in shambles, with unemployment skyrocketing and growth absent," Powell told the AIPAC conference. "Internal and external closures have disrupted movement."

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