Mideast violence called threat to anti-terror fight

Bush asks Israel to leave six Palestinian towns

October 24, 2001|By Mark Matthews and David L. Greene | Mark Matthews and David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush told Israel's foreign minister yesterday that Middle East violence could interfere with efforts to hold together an international anti-terror coalition and called on Israel to withdraw its troops from six towns in Palestinian territory.

Bush's appeal, reported by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, marked a rare admission by the administration that it sees a direct link between its efforts to destroy Osama bin Laden's network and its efforts to halt the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Spokesmen usually say that the two issues are separate, and that the United States has pursued Middle East peace for its own sake.

Moderate Arab leaders, whose help the United States has sought in the war against terror, have demanded that the Bush administration assume a more visible role in the conflict and restrain longtime U.S. ally Israel. They warn that public opinion in the region has been inflamed by U.S. support for the Jewish state, making it hard for moderate Arabs to cooperate.

Israel and some of its backers complain the administration is making Israel pay an unfair price for Washington to win support from Arab regimes. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said recently that he wouldn't allow Israel to be sacrificed to appease Arab states.

At a brief meeting with reporters, Bush avoided answering directly when asked if an Israeli failure to withdraw from the Palestinian areas makes it harder to keep Arab states in the coalition.

He said the American people were saddened by the assassination last week of Rehavam Zeevi, the far-right Israeli tourism minister, by a Palestinian militant.

"I also told [Peres] that we continue to call upon Chairman [Yasser] Arafat to do everything he can to bring the killer to justice. ... [Arafat] must show the resolve necessary to bring peace to the region," said Bush. "And finally, I did express our concern about troops in Palestinian territory, and I would hope the Israelis would move their troops as quickly as possible."

Earlier, Peres, emerging from a meeting with Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, was asked if Bush raised the issue of whether Mideast violence could get in the way of keeping the coalition together.

"He did," Peres said. "He would like very much [for] the flames to go down, and I told him we shall do whatever we can to reduce them."

A senior White House official did not dispute Peres' account but couched it differently. "The president stated that Israel will be a beneficiary of the campaign against terrorism," said the official. He also said that Bush sent Arafat a letter yesterday, but he would not comment on its contents.

An Israeli official, who also spoke anonymously, said, "The implication is, `We've got to build a coalition and we don't want problems. We want terrorism and al-Qaida to be the issue.'"

Twice in the last two days, the State Department has demanded that Israel withdraw "immediately" from the six Palestinian towns, including Bethlehem, that it occupied last week in response to the Zeevi assassination. The incursions sparked a surge of violence.

Monday, the State Department also "deplored" the killing during the previous several days of "numerous" Palestinian civilians, while also demanding that Arafat bring Zeevi's killers to justice.

There were mixed signals yesterday on whether Israel would comply with the American demand for immediate withdrawal. Peres said outside the State Department that Israel was sticking to its refusal to withdraw until Arafat turned over the Zeevi killers.

The Palestinian Authority has rejected similar demands in the past.

But an Israeli official later was more vague. "If Arafat shows seriousness, Israel will immediately follow through. He has to take serious and significant steps," the official said.

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