Stiffer resolve greets Powell in Jerusalem

Sharon vows to press West Bank offensive in wake of deadly bombing

Prospects bleak for visit today

European Union, Russia, U.N. back mission, call for truce, Israeli withdrawal

April 11, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will arrive in Jerusalem today to try to broker a truce between two aging warriors - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat - at a time of growing friction between Israel and its close ally the United States.

On the eve of his visit, the prospects for success by Powell seem bleak. And the White House, facing continued Israeli and Arab defiance of President Bush's demands to bring a halt to Middle East violence, sought to play down any expectations of a breakthrough.

"Welcome to the Middle East," said Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer. "No matter how difficult this is, the president will not give up."

Israel, struck yesterday by yet another suicide bombing - an attack near Haifa that killed at least eight civilians on a bus and shattered a brief respite from terror - vowed to press on with a military offensive that Bush has repeatedly demanded be stopped.

At the same time, Arab states continued their silence about Palestinian terrorism, resisting Bush's demand that they denounce suicide bombings.

The mission holds high stakes for the president as well as for Powell, since it marks the first time since entering office that Bush has put his prestige on the line in the Middle East.

Bush decided last week to intervene after a rash of suicide bombings and a major Israeli assault on Palestinian towns and institutions threatened to send the conflict spiraling out of control.

The escalating Middle East violence has raised fears of a wider war that could destabilize the region, jolt oil markets, weaken American allies and undermine the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

Powell will try to persuade Israeli and Palestinian leaders to halt 18 months of bloodshed.

Beyond a cease-fire, Powell hopes to prepare the ground for a renewed Middle East peace process that could lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state and broad acceptance of Israel within the Arab world.

If this was an exceedingly ambitious agenda to start with, it has grown even more daunting since Powell left Washington on Sunday. Even as Israel withdrew its forces from several West Bank villages yesterday, it continued to occupy the population centers of Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem and Jenin, the scene of ferocious battles.

The Israeli military operations have raised the prospect that Powell would have to wring concessions from Arabs and Palestinians in order to gain a further Israeli withdrawal.

Fleischer set the stage for this yesterday, seizing on the partial Israeli pullout as a positive sign and putting new pressure on Arab leaders.

"The withdrawal the president called for is continuing," he said. "And now the Palestinian Authority and the Arab nations have to step up to their responsibilities to denounce terrorism, to disrupt terrorist financing and to stop the incitement to violence by state-owned media."

Sharon's challenge to the president was reinforced in Washington by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of Israel's most potent English-speaking orators, who questioned whether the United States is losing its nerve in the war on terrorism.

"Until last week, I was absolutely certain that the United States would adhere to its principles and lead the free world to a decisive victory," Netanyahu said yesterday in a speech to about 20 U.S. senators. "If we do not shut down the terror factories that Arafat is hosting, those terror factories that are producing human bombs, it is only a matter of time before suicide bombers will terrorize your cities here in America. If not destroyed, this madness will strike in your buses, in your supermarkets, in your pizza parlors, in your cafes."

Netanyahu said Israel is being condemned by Europe, which 60 years ago "refused to lift a finger" to save the Jewish people from the Holocaust and is now "turning its collective back on a Jewish state determined to ward off mass killers."

"The America I know has always been different," he said.

Netanyahu is preparing a political comeback, challenging the hard-line Sharon from the right. But he spoke yesterday with the prime minister's blessing.

An Israeli government official here said Sharon had asked Netanyahu "to contribute his talents to creating a better understanding of Israel's security predicament."

The speech, carried on CNN, provoked a scathing reply from Hassan Abdel Rahman, the Palestinian envoy to Washington, who called Netanyahu a bigot and himself invoked the dark hours of World War II.

Abdel Rahman likened the battle by Palestinians at the refugee camp in Jenin, where more than 150 Palestinian residents and 13 Israeli soldiers have died, to the uprising against Nazi rule by Jews in the Warsaw ghetto.

Powell's planned meeting with Arafat has drawn Israeli opposition. Sharon, who openly despises Arafat and would like to exile him, called the meeting "a tragic mistake."

Powell will also face likely Israeli resistance over his strategy for political talks.

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