Bush deepens rift with Arabs

He refuses to ask Israel to end siege

March 31, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush backed the right yesterday of the Israeli government to decide for itself how to retaliate against terrorist attacks, refusing to ask it to end its siege of Yasser Arafat.

The president also avoided endorsing a U.N. Security Council demand that Israel withdraw its forces from the West Bank city of Ramallah - even though the United States had voted for the U.N. resolution just hours before.

Instead, the president called on Arab and other foreign leaders to take a stronger public stand against terrorist attacks on Israelis, warning that until the attacks end, peace talks will be impossible.

Bush's stance seemed certain to deepen America's rift with the Arab world, whose leaders have been demanding that Bush restrain Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The rift became obvious during Vice President Dick Cheney's recent trip through the region, when Arab leaders came out against a military confrontation with Iraq and warned that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict posed the most urgent threat to regional stability.

Bush's comments could be interpreted both in Israel and the Arab world as a tacit acceptance of the new Israeli offensive, even though the president cautioned Sharon to leave open a "path to peace."

They reflected apparent struggles within the administration and between the United States and its allies over how to curb a dangerous escalation of the Middle East conflict while supporting a friend and the region's only democracy.

Administration officials continue to voice anger at Arafat over the Palestinian leader's refusal to accept a cease-fire proposed by Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, the U.S. special envoy, in the days just before a suicide bomber killed 22 Israelis at a Passover Seder in the coastal town of Netanya.

And while welcoming the offer by the Arab League of "normal relations" with Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from the occupied territories, officials here were annoyed that none of the Arab leaders gathered for a summit in Beirut condemned the Passover bombing. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell underscored this in a telephone conversation with Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Maher, saying the Passover attack was "fundamental."

Many Arabs view terrorism against Israel as a legitimate form of resistance to occupation, and compare it with Israeli military actions that have caused large numbers of civilian casualties among Palestinians. Many more Palestinians than Israelis have died in the 18-month conflict, but suicide attacks have sharply increased the civilian death toll among Israelis.

Bush gave his first public reaction to Israel's dramatic incursion into Ramallah more than 24 hours after it riveted television viewers worldwide. At a hastily summoned news conference at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he is spending the Easter weekend, Bush said, "I fully understand Israel's need to defend herself. I respect that."

Asked directly if Israel should withdraw its forces from the West Bank town of Ramallah, where they have confined Arafat to a couple of windowless rooms at his headquarters with no electricity, Bush replied deliberately: "Israel is a democratically elected government, and the government is responding to the will of the people for there to be more security, and Israel will make the decisions necessary to defend herself."

Israel, he added, should work with other countries in the region to develop "a strategy that will end up with a peaceful settlement."

"All of the leaders in the world must stand up against terror ... and that especially applies to Chairman Arafat," Bush told reporters in a small trailer near his ranch where he conducts secure video conferences with his aides.

"I believe he needs to stand up and condemn, in Arabic, these attacks," Bush said.

Bush disputed the argument that Arafat's ability to control his forces and his people has been undercut by the Israeli siege. He said Arafat still has "a lot of forces" that he can influence, and "a lot of people listen to him."

"He's got to speak out more clearly."

Bush noted that his administration had helped pass a U.N. Security Council resolution yesterday, but chose to mention only part of it: a call for a cease-fire and for a start to a process to end the cycle of violence.

The Security Council called on "both parties to move immediately to a meaningful cease-fire," demanded "the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian cities, including Ramallah," and urged both sides to "cooperate fully with Special Envoy Zinni."

Hours before Bush spoke, an administration official had said the United States strongly supported the resolution. The resolution appeared to represent a compromise between the U.S. demand for a cease-fire and a push by France, Russia and others for an immediate Israeli withdrawal from Arafat's headquarters.

Bush, stepping up telephone diplomacy, spoke yesterday with King Abdullah II of Jordan, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar of Spain and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, who initiated the peace proposal endorsed last week by the Arab League.

A White House spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, said, "The president discussed with each leader the situation in the Middle East and reiterated that [U.S. envoy] Gen. Zinni will remain in the region, and reaffirmed that the United States remains committed to getting back into the peace process."

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