Bush praises Arafat, prods Israeli leaders

President lauds statement against terror, reminds Sharon of his `vision'

U.S. seeks Palestinian reforms

Recent suicide bombing, Israel's retaliation vow could renew violent cycle

May 09, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush praised what he called "an incredibly positive sign" from Yasser Arafat yesterday after the Palestinian leader gave a televised speech to his people in Arabic in which he demanded that "all terror attacks against Israeli civilians" be halted.

At the same time, Bush sent a mixed signal to Israel's leaders, who are deliberating over how to respond to Tuesday's suicide bombing in Rishon Letzion, which killed 15 Israelis and wounded scores more. Before leaving Washington on Tuesday night, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel indicated that Israeli military retaliation would be forceful.

After noting that Israel is "a sovereign nation," Bush added, "My hope, of course, is that the prime minister keeps his vision of peace in mind."

"We've got to want peace to achieve peace," the president said.

Bush's words of appreciation for Arafat marked a striking change in his stance toward a man whose hand he has refused to shake and who is frequently the object of the president's exasperation. Bush had criticized Arafat on Monday as a disappointment, and on April 4 said that the Palestinian leader had failed his people.

Early today, about 10 Israeli tanks and armored vehicles entered the Palestinian section of the West Bank city of Hebron, according to a report. Israeli military sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was a limited operation but gave no other details.

Speaking on Palestinian television early yesterday, Arafat said, "I gave my orders and directions to all the Palestinian security forces to confront and prevent all terror attacks against Israeli civilians from any Palestinian side or parties."

"I was most pleased that he did that. I thought that was an incredibly positive sign," Bush said in a brief news conference with Jordan's King Abdullah II. "I hope that his actions now match his words."

Bush's signals to Sharon and Arafat came as he struggled to build momentum toward a renewed peace process despite signs that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is falling into its familiar pattern of terrorism and retribution after the relative calm of recent weeks.

His meeting with King Abdullah was the latest in a series of steps Bush has taken to sound out the views of regional leaders and try to find some common ground.

Yet even while Bush praised Arafat yesterday, his administration moved closer to Israel's view that Arafat's autocratic rule must be weakened as a necessary step toward the creation of a Palestinian state.

The administration said it still regarded Arafat as the head of the Palestinian Authority and as the chosen leader of his people. But U.S. officials publicly demanded a series of political and economic reforms by Arafat that, taken together, would loosen his grip on the authority's purse strings, security services and institutions.

They have strongly indicated that Arafat needs to share power with others, which he has long been loath to do.

Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman, warned Arafat that he risked losing desperately needed international aid unless the Palestinian Authority became more accountable and open.

"This is what we, as international donors, as friends of many leaderships around the world, expect of them as we look forward to anticipation of a Palestinian state down the road," Boucher said.

The international aid is needed to rebuild the Palestinian infrastructure and government facilities after months of heavy Israeli military assaults that have wrecked numerous buildings and roads in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Bush repeated yesterday his intention to send George J. Tenet, director of central intelligence, to the region to design a security service that would replace the half-dozen agencies that now report to Arafat.

"And we've got to make sure they have a better future by putting an economic plan in place," Bush said. "But that can't happen unless there is a Palestinian Authority that's backed by a true government, a true sense of the ability to run itself."

Aboard Air Force One, Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, said that Arafat was being put on notice. "This is the heart of the matter for the Palestinian people: Is their leadership dedicated to violence or is their stated promise in Oslo a meaningful one?" Fleischer said.

The 1993 Oslo accords opened the way for years of negotiations that were intended to lead to a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Fleischer, like other U.S. officials in recent days, appeared to open the door for other Palestinian leaders to emerge and to share responsibility with Arafat.

"The president's focus includes Yasser Arafat, but it's broader than that," Fleischer said. "Progress can be made by talking with a number of people, including Arab nations, as well as those people who work diligently in the Palestinian Authority to try to find ways to bring about reforms."

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