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Bush, Sharon Strike Different Notes

February 8, 2002

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon differ on what role Yasser Arafat should play in restarting Mideast peacekeeping, but Sharon insists there is no dispute between Israel and the United States.

Briefing journalists Thursday night after his fourth White House meeting in a year with Bush, Sharon said he believed that isolating Arafat diplomatically would encourage the emergence of an alternative, more pragmatic Palestinian leadership.

``The more Arafat’s irrelevance is pushed, the faster a new leadership will come,″ Sharon said.

But earlier, at the White House, Bush gave Arafat another chance to quell Palestinian attacks on Israelis and held out the prospect of a generous cash handout to ease the plight of the Palestinian people.

``Mr. Arafat has heard my message,″ Bush told reporters after meeting with Sharon. ``I can’t be any more clear about it, that he must do everything in his power to reduce terrorist attacks on Israel.″

Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who also is visiting Washington, told the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot he was surprised by the tough position senior Bush administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, had taken against Arafat.

``On the subject, Cheney was more extreme than Rehavam Zeevi,″ Ben-Eliezer said, referring to the ultranationalist Israeli tourism minister assassinated last year. ``The vice president told me: As far as I am concerned, you can also hang him (Arafat).″

Cheney plans to visit Israel and eight Arab countries next month.

Sharon, who has severed ties with Arafat and would like Washington to do the same, dismissed the Palestinian leader as ``an obstacle to peace″ but said he had not asked Bush to end contacts with the Palestinian leader.

``We didn’t go into it,″ he told journalists accompanying him on his three-day visit to the United States. There was ``no trace of a dispute,″ he said.

In interviews with Israeli newspapers published Friday, Arafat said he held no grudge against Sharon. ``I want to send him a message from the heart: Please, Sharon, let us sit together at the table,″ Arafat told the Maariv daily.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat, reacting to Sharon’s comments, said, ``President Arafat is an elected president by the Palestinian people. ... Sharon’s insistence on saying such sentences reflects the real intention of this Israeli government of continuing the escalation and aggression on the Palestinian people.″

On Friday Sharon was flying to New York, where he will meet American Jewish leaders before returning to Israel on Saturday night.

At a joint news conference with Bush in the Oval Office, Sharon renewed a promise of Palestinian statehood.

``I believe at the end of the process we will see a Palestinian state. But only at the end, in the final steps,″ he said, adding that there must first be ``a full cessation of terror, violence and incitement.″

Ben-Eliezer, the Israeli defense minister, said Thursday that Palestinians who were willing to stop attacks on Israelis should be encouraged to take the reins of power.

``Arafat is the only one who can (impose order) but he doesn’t want to. There is a leadership alongside him who want to but cannot,″ he said, adding that he advised U.S. officials to concentrate their diplomatic efforts on these people, whom he did not name.

Sharon and Bush met for 50 minutes, sharing a joint commitment to oppose terror and discussing Mideast regional issues.

The president gave no indication in his exchanges with reporters what steps he might take if Arafat continued to resist his demands.

Bush stressed the difficulties of the Palestinian people, whose lives have been constrained by Israel in its attempt to avert attacks.

``I am deeply concerned about the plight of the average Palestinians, the moms and dads who are trying to raise their children,″ the president said.

He said he had $300 million in the budget to provide assistance to Palestinians. Sharon, taking the cue, promised to do what he could on their behalf but linked aid to Palestinian success in stopping attacks on Israelis.

``I presented a detailed plan for an aid effort by the international community,″ he told the Israel-based reporters. ``We agreed that steps by the Palestinian Authority against terror will certainly improve the economic situation of those Palestinians who are not involved in terror and we discussed the ways in which the world’s private sector can contribute to creating growth and jobs.″

Sharon said the plan, which could be implemented over several years would aim to create 100,000 jobs in the Gaza Strip, which has been hardest hit by the blockade imposed by Israel in response to a 16-month Palestinian uprising.

Sharon predicted ultimate victory over terrorism after a long struggle.

Even as Sharon was visiting, Israel struck a Palestinian government complex in the West Bank with missiles. The attack was in retaliation for an Islamic militant’s assault on a Jewish settlement on Wednesday that killed three Israelis.

On Friday, Israeli forces entered Palestinian areas in the West Bank to arrest suspected militants.