U.S. stands by an ally in crisis

White House blames Palestinian terrorists for halt in peace talks

Sharon `flexibility' praised

March 30, 2002|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With peace talks broken down and American prestige in the Middle East undermined, the Bush administration stuck by Israel yesterday, even as Israeli tanks bore down on the compound of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The Bush administration blamed the crisis on this week's wave of suicide attacks by Palestinian extremists rather than Israel's military retaliation, events that all but extinguished hopes for a quick end to the growing bloodshed.

President Bush remained secluded at his Texas ranch, conferring by telephone and a secure video link with advisers. Aides said they did not know when he would make a statement about the latest events, developments that seem certain to increase pressure on the president to become more personally involved in finding a solution.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who delivered the administration's public response, described the president as "gravely concerned" over the "very serious situation in the Middle East."

Powell demanded that Arafat "make clear to the Palestinian people that terror and violence must halt now." He said the crisis had interrupted recent peace-making initiatives in the region, which, he said, had been cause for "guarded optimism."

"Let's be clear about what brought it all to a halt - terrorism," Powell said. "Terrorism in its rawest form."

Arafat, he added, must "act against those responsible for these acts."

At the same time, Powell praised Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for showing "a great deal of flexibility" in recent weeks, as the White House attempted to broker a cease-fire and start a new round of peace talks.

Those talks appeared to have collapsed as Israeli forces rolled into the West Bank city of Ramallah yesterday. Powell said that U.S. envoy Anthony C. Zinni would remain in the region but said he did not know whether his peace mission was salvageable.

Palestinian leaders were said to have been "infuriated" by Powell's statement of support for Israel during the assault on Arafat's headquarters.

Retired U.S. diplomat Edward Abington, an adviser to the Palestinians, said on CNN yesterday that senior aides to Arafat were enraged that Powell had "sided almost entirely with the Israelis."

Powell deplored the killing and wounding of innocent Palestinians in Ramallah. But he said Bush and his advisers "understand the Israeli government need[s] to respond to these acts of terror."

Israel's government has sought to keep Bush from criticizing its actions, by likening them to the U.S. military response to the terrorist attacks in September. One Israeli official this week called Arafat "our bin Laden."

Powell, who spoke by phone with Sharon on Thursday night, cautioned the Israeli prime minister to show "necessary restraint" as his forces pressed military action and to "carefully consider the consequences of those actions."

Sharon assured him, Powell said, that Arafat would be neither killed nor physically harmed in the military operation. Sharon, who earlier made the same promise to Bush, told an Israeli newspaper this week that he regretted having made that pledge to the president.

Bush, in sending his Secretary of State before the cameras in Washington and staying out of sight in Texas, attempted to distance himself from the deteriorating Middle East situation, which has exposed the administration's inability to influence events there.

Early in his term, Bush rejected direct U.S. mediation in the Middle East but he has been forced to become increasingly enmeshed in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. As violence there intensifies, it threatens to undermine the central thrust of his presidency: the campaign against international terror.

Thursday, the White House suffered a significant blow to its prestige when Arab leaders, at a summit meeting in Lebanon, expressed support for Iraqi Leader Saddam Hussein by declaring that an attack on Iraq would be considered an assault on all Arab states.

Bush hopes to rally Arab governments behind a possible American-led military action against Iraq. This month, he dispatched Vice President Dick Cheney to the Mideast to deliver the message in person. But Cheney encountered unexpected resistance from Arab leaders, who are extremely nervous that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis might affect the stability of their regimes.

As a result of those concerns, easing the tensions between Israel and the Palestinians became a focus of Cheney's mission. But his offer to meet with Arafat, if the Palestinian leader would crack down on Palestinian terrorists, failed.

Powell, answering a reporter's question yesterday, said he did not know whether the escalating violence in Israel had ended the administration's latest attempt to stabilize the situation and bring the two sides together.

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