President’s tough line on Arafat bolsters Israel at tough time |

President’s tough line on Arafat bolsters Israel at tough time


WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush’s tough stand on terrorism and his demand that Yasser Arafat speak out ”loud and clear” against it are likely to be taken by Israel as a vote of confidence at a difficult time.

Unable to stop suicide bombers, accused of foot-dragging in peacemaking, denounced as racist by the young Syrian President Bashar Assad, Israel looked to Washington for support. It got it from Bush on Thursday.

The president was mildly critical of the force of Israel’s retaliatory strike at Arafat strongholds on the West Bank and in Gaza, but he did not dispute Israel’s right of self-defense. He backed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in calling for security talks with the Palestinian Authority and he adopted Sharon’s thesis that Arafat can curb the attacks on Israel.

”The signal I am sending to the Palestinians is stop the violence,” Bush said at a news conference. ”I cannot make it any more clear. And I hope that Chairman Arafat hears it loud and clear.”

Secretary of State Colin Powell, at Bush’s direction, quickly telephoned Arafat with the message.

Earlier, at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah, Arafat was defiant.

”Our people will continue the Al Aqsa uprising until we raise the Palestinian flag in every mosque and church and on the walls of Jerusalem,” he said after briefly inspecting his force’s mobile homes that were scorched by Israeli bombardment Wednesday.

Now, however, the president of the United States has put him on the spot to pre-empt attacks by Palestinians, even those carried out by militant groups like Hamas that are not under Arafat’s command.

”He’s a major figure who’s listened to, particularly when he speaks directly to people in the region,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

While Arafat has gained stature through the years in Europe as well as the Middle East in his struggle to wrest territory and part of Jerusalem from Israel, his need for U.S. support remains essential to his cause.

But Bush not only made clear he is not about to push Sharon into land-for-peace talks the prime minister considers premature, the president again declined to invite the Palestinian leader to the White House.

Mideast leaders tend to give great weight to symbolism. And Bush has given them something to think about. Sharon was his first visitor from the region. The first two Arab leaders he has invited have peace treaties with Israel and are considered moderates – President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah II of Jordan.

But Bush said he had a ”crowded calendar” and implied an invitation to Arafat depended on whether he used his influence to stop the violence.

A day earlier, a pair of evenhanded statements from the White House and the State Department pulled back from what had been virtually unqualified support and understanding for Israel and Sharon against world pressure in behalf of the Palestinians.

That support was typified by a U.S. veto of a Palestinian resolution to send U.N. observers to the region – a resolution opposed by Israel as likely to contribute to its condemnation.

”What we stood up for in the United Nations was what we think are necessary and effective steps to support the peace process,” Boucher said.

Dennis B. Ross, who stepped down in January after 12 years as special U.S. mediator for the region, agreed that ”it is important for Arafat to come out and condemn the acts of terrorism.”

That, Ross said, would make it possible for Sharon to lift his curbs on the Palestinian economy and hold interim peace talks with the Palestinians.

”I think you have an administration that is sending a message it is ready to be involved but wants to see some behavior that makes it useful to be involved,” Ross said in an interview.

Judith Kipper, of the Council on Foreign Relations, a private research group, said Bush’s policy is strongly supportive of Israel ”but using massive conventional force against a primarily civilian population that is under siege is not going to bring about the desired result.”

And, she said, Bush’s approach ”is going to cause a lot of problems for the United States in the region and with our allies in Europe and elsewhere.”

Robert H. Pelletreau, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and eight other Arab countries, said ”Chairman Arafat should not hesitate to condemn the violence, but calling for an end to violence when tempers are high and no one is willing to listen can only undercut his leadership.”

Pelletreau, in an interview, said the United States must be forceful and evenhanded in calling on all parties to reduce the violence.

”Much as this administration would like to, it cannot avoid engagement in the Arab-Israeli conflict,” the retired diplomat said. ”It is linked to every major objective that the United states wishes to achieve in the Middle East.”

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., called for a ”balanced approach” to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians during a House International Relations Subcommittee hearing.

”The body count on the Palestinian side is a lot higher than the Israeli side,” Rohrabacher said.

EDITOR’S NOTE – Barry Schweid has covered U.S. Middle East diplomacy since 1973.

AP-WS-03-29-01 1559EST

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