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Middle East: Differences Remain Between U.S., Israel

By Frank T. Csongos/Andrew F. Tully

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has cut short his visit to Washington after a suicide bomber killed 15 people and injured dozens more in a pool hall near Tel Aviv overnight. Before news of the attack broke, the Israeli leader had been consulting with U.S. President George W. Bush about the continuing conflict with the Palestinians. While Bush remains a staunch supporter of Israel, the two men made it clear after their meeting at the White House yesterday that they still have differences on how best to resolve the crisis.

Washington, 8 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United States is sending the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) back to the Middle East to help build a Palestinian security force capable of fighting terrorism effectively.

U.S. President George W. Bush informed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of the decision during an hour-long White House meeting yesterday.

Speaking at a joint appearance with Sharon afterward, the president told reporters that CIA Director George Tenet's job will be to help design a unified Palestinian security force that will be held accountable. Bush noted that right now there are several Palestinian security forces that do not always work smoothly together.

As the two leaders were meeting in Washington, a suicide bomb attack shattered a pool hall in the Israeli city of Rishon le Zion, killing at least 15 people and wounding dozens more. Sharon cut short his visit on receiving news of the attack.

It was clear in their meeting with reporters that Bush and Sharon did not resolve their differences over how to restore peace in the region. For example, Bush emphasized his wish for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Sharon, however, stressed Israeli security concerns and what he called corruption in Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. "I think that it's still premature to discuss this issue [of a Palestinian state]. I think that what we have to concentrate [on] now is making every effort that real reform will take place."

Bush agreed that the Palestinian Authority must undertake reforms, and that security is important for both Israelis and Palestinians. But he also said the U.S. wants to help Palestinians develop a political infrastructure. "I think it's very important that there be a unified security force. But at the same time we need to work for other institutions -- a constitution, for example, a framework for development of a state that can help bring security and hope to the Palestinian people and the Israelis."

For his part, Sharon said that the Israeli military incursion into the West Bank has moved the peace process forward because it was a blow to terrorists who operate from the Palestinian-controlled areas. "And now, after the last operation that we carried out against the infrastructure of terror in Samaria and Judea -- or as you call it, the West Bank -- I believe that there is a chance now to start a move forward."

Bush and Sharon also apparently still disagree whether Arafat should be included in coming peace negotiations. Sharon contends that Arafat encourages the suicide attacks that Palestinians have been mounting primarily against Israeli civilians.

The Bush administration, however, says it is not up to the United States or Israel to decide who should lead the Palestinian people. Yet speaking with reporters yesterday, Bush said he would not pressure Sharon to negotiate with Arafat.

Sharon arrived in Washington in hopes of discrediting Arafat. He brought with him documents indicating that the Palestinian leader supports terrorists and is, in fact, still practicing terrorism himself. At a meeting of American Jewish leaders in Washington on 6 May, Sharon laid out his stand on Arafat explicitly: "For the past 19 months, Israel has been facing a brutal campaign of terrorism, instigated and encouraged by the Palestinian Authority and its leader. Israel is now at war and we are fighting for our home."

And the Israeli leader said that in the wake of the 11 September suicide attacks on the U.S., the American people -- and their president -- should be able to understand his country's response to Palestinian terror attacks that target civilians: "There is a moral equivalency and direct connection between America's continuous operations against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Operation Defensive Shield [Israel's West Bank operation] and any other Israeli Defense Forces operation to defeat terrorism. They are acts of self-defense against the same forces of evil and darkness, bent on destroying civilized society."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush was busy this week speaking by telephone about the Middle East conflict with other leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.

Fleischer said Bush thanked Putin for his support in helping resolve the Middle East conflict, and he told Mubarak that he welcomes his leadership in seeking a resolution. According to Fleischer, Bush also was continuing his ongoing discussions with Abdullah, who has become a major force among Arab leaders in trying to settle the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Bush meets today with Abdullah at the White House.