Sharon warns of a forceful reply to attack

Israeli leader halts U.S. visit after word of latest suicide bombing

At least 15 are killed

Bush orders CIA chief to Mideast to alter Palestinian security force

May 08, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned last night of a forceful response to a suicide bombing that killed 15 Israelis, wounded at least 50 others and abruptly ended the fragile calm that President Bush hoped would usher in a renewed peace process.

A suicide bomber set off explosives in a crowded pool hall in the Israeli town of Rishon Letzion just as Bush and Sharon began a meeting that focused on how the United States and Israel can move forward in restoring Israeli security and reopening peace talks.

But Sharon told reporters later that Israel "might have to respond forcefully" in self-defense, adding, "That's what we're going to do."

In a prepared statement, he said, "The battle continues and will continue, until all those who believe that they can make gains through the use of terror will cease to exist."

"Israel will fight, Israel will triumph, and when victory prevails, Israel will make peace." he said.

Sharon said he had not told either President Bush or Vice President Cheney of his plans.

A senior Bush administration official, briefing reporters after the talks, said that while the president "feels very strongly that terrorism has to be fought." he also feels "there has to be a recommitment to peace in the face of those who would do everything that they could to scuttle it."

The attack prompted Sharon to cut short his visit to the United States and to return to Israel last night instead of spending today in New York.

Earlier, in a threat to Yasser Arafat's power, President Bush ordered the director of central intelligence, George J. Tenet, to return to the Middle East to help transform the various Palestinian security services into a single force that would fight terror and help stabilize the region.

The meeting yesterday between Bush and Sharon failed to bridge sharp differences over what steps are necessary to achieve peace in the Middle East. In a session with reporters at the White House, the two men disagreed over the U.S. insistence that an independent Palestinian state must be established. They also differed over whether to deal with Arafat as the recognized leader of the Palestinians, which Sharon refuses to do.

While Bush reaffirmed his vision of a Palestinian state, Sharon said it was premature to discuss it until the Palestinian Authority undergoes major reform. Bush said he would not insist that Israel follow the U.S. policy of continuing to negotiate with Arafat. "I'm never going to tell my friend the prime minister what to do." the president said.

The two men agreed, however, on the need to transform the Palestinian Authority, which, under Arafat's leadership, has been widely criticized for corruption and a lack of democracy and adherence to the rule of law. The plan to send Tenet to the region to design a new Palestinian security structure would mark a significant first step in that direction.

It was left unclear last night which Palestinian officials would work with Tenet, how long he would remain in the region and whether he would need cooperation from Arafat. A senior administration official raised the possibility that Arafat would lose control of the new security force, even though the United States recognizes him as the Palestinian leader. "We will see how this reconstruction goes forward." the official said, adding, "Nobody [from the U.S.] is trying to choose the leadership of the Palestinian people."

Bush made clear that he was assigning a high priority to Tenet's mission as a way to restore calm to the Middle East.

"One of the things that I think is important - the prime minister has discussed this as well - is for us to immediately begin to rebuild a security force in Palestine that will fight terror, that will bring some stability to the region." Bush said. "I think it's very important that there be a unified security force."

Arafat's half-dozen or more overlapping security services, all reporting to him, are viewed as a vital element of his autocratic rule. Those security services prevent any single armed group from gaining enough strength to challenge Arafat. The various agencies, in fact, are reported by Israelis to spy on each other.

Two of the agencies - the preventive security services in the West Bank and Gaza - have received money and training from the CIA and have cooperated with the CIA and the Israeli intelligence services in preventing terrorism. Though their cooperation with Israel has mostly ceased during the months of conflict, neither agency is reported to have played a direct role in orchestrating violence against Israelis.

Other security agencies, including the elite Force 17 that protects Arafat, have been linked by Israeli officials to acts of anti-Israeli violence. Several of their facilities have been attacked by the Israeli army.

Bush said Tenet, who has played a key role in fostering Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, would return to the region to "design the construction of a security force that will be transparent and accountable."

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