Bush defends Israeli troop occupation

Sharon praised while pressure put on Arafat

`We will hold him to account'

Tensions could deepen between U.S., Arab world

April 19, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush defended yesterday Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank towns of Ramallah and Bethlehem, calling Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a "man of peace" who is trying to bring "killers" to justice.

Speaking a day after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell returned from the Middle East without the cease-fire he had hoped to broker, Bush made clear that the U.S. peace efforts cannot move forward until Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and leaders in the Arab world crack down on terrorists.

"Mr. Arafat did condemn terror," Bush said. "And we will hold him to account."

While ratcheting up pressure on the Palestinian leader, Bush appeared to give Sharon his blessing to keep troops in Bethlehem, at least for a time, and to continue his three-week siege on Arafat's compound in Ramallah, backing away from his earlier demand for a swift and complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

Bush said Israel has a right to continue pursuing Palestinian militants who have sought sanctuary in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

"Once the people are out of the Church of the Nativity, Israel will leave - pull back out of Bethlehem," Bush said. "This is good progress."

In Ramallah, he said, Israeli forces are trying to capture suspects in the assassination of an Israeli cabinet minister who are believed to be holed up in the basement of Arafat's besieged compound.

"I can understand why the prime minister wants them brought to justice," the president said. "They should be brought to justice if they killed this man in cold blood."

While Bush said that Powell had made some progress and that the United States would keep seeking peace, he sounded resigned to further strife. Gone was the resolve and cautious optimism he displayed two weeks ago when he stood in the Rose Garden, sending Powell on his mission and calling forcefully for an end to violence.

"This is a part of the world where killing had been going on for a long, long time," said Bush, seated beside Powell in the Oval Office. "And one trip by the secretary of state is not going to prevent that from happening, but one trip by the secretary of state laid out the framework and the path to achieve peace."

Tension could deepen

Bush's supportive words for Sharon could deepen tensions between the United States and the Arab world, where leaders have called on Bush to take a tougher stance toward Sharon and have warned that they will not denounce terrorism until Israel fully withdraws its forces.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told a congressional panel yesterday that support for the United States in that region has already eroded because of the Middle East crisis.

Administration officials have said Arab leaders' backing is crucial for the global war on terrorism and for the president's push to remove President Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.

"We are clearly, at least temporarily, losing some support," Armitage told a House appropriations subcommittee. "We've got a problem."

The president declined to answer a question about whether he would support an international peace conference, a possible next step that was discussed by Powell and both parties in the region.

Aides later scrambled to explain that the president, despite his comments, still wants Israel's troops out of the West Bank as soon as possible.

Speaking of Ramallah, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that Bush "understands Israel is saying that they will not withdraw until that is resolved." But he added that "the president has given a blanket statement, `Withdraw from the West Bank.' The president is committed to that blanket statement."

Bush's message yesterday was warmly received at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Embassy spokesman Mark Regev said that if there was any doubt about who was to blame for Powell making little progress, the president made clear that it was Arafat.

Regev said that Israel would continue its "organized" withdrawal from the West Bank, adding that Israeli forces were making sure to wipe out terrorist threats before leaving each town. "If we speed up our withdrawal, we'll just have more suicide bombings," Regev said. "Everybody knows that."

At the Egyptian Embassy here, spokesman Hisham Nakib said that despite Bush's praise for Sharon and tough line against Arafat yesterday, "We are still hopeful [Bush] will take all necessary measures to establish a fair and comprehensive peace."

Attempts to obtain comment from the Palestinian Authority's office in Washington were not successful yesterday.

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