- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2001

Ariel Sharon yesterday won ringing support for Israel from the Bush administration and Congress on his first visit as prime minister, but rejected requests that he do more to ease economic pressure on the Palestinians.
Mr. Sharon told Secretary of State Colin Powell in a closed meeting that he had eased some travel and trade restrictions but saw no lessening of the violence that has plagued the region since September.
"The secretary encouraged him to take steps to ease the pressure [on the Palestinians]," a State Department official said. "He said he is doing some things, but did not see a response on the other side."
Two Israelis were fatally shot by Palestinians shortly after Mr. Sharon departed for Washington. The prime minister's office accused the Palestinian Authority, led by Yasser Arafat, of increasing involvement in the mayhem.
The deaths prompted the Israeli army to reseal the Arab city of Bethlehem just days after it had been opened for trade and travel.
"Terrorism as a form of warfare is a strategic issue in our region," Mr. Sharon said at a conference of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) last night. "Acts of terror, instigated by the Palestinian Authority, coupled with deliberate incitement, have become one of the primary sources of instability in the Middle East."
Mr. Sharon has said he will not resume peace negotiations with the Palestinians unless Mr. Arafat calls openly for his people to end attacks on Israelis and until his Palestinian Authority shows it is working to prevent such violence.
However, he was optimistic about the possible success of such negotiations.
"I believe that Israel can reach an agreement with the Palestinians, and I will make every effort to reach such an agreement," he told AIPAC's annual conference.
Mr. Powell urged talks to begin, the State Department official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"We see direct talks as very important," he said Mr. Powell told Mr. Sharon.
The Likud party leader, who took power earlier this month and formed his nation's most broad-based government, also held separate, closed meetings during the day with CIA chief George Tenant, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Mr. Sharon meets President Bush today.
The difference of views in what the official called "the discussion among allies" did not appear to dampen support for Israel from U.S. officials.
"We understand it is difficult for them to take some steps if violence is continuing," the official said.
Bush administration officials and congressional leaders said the United States is willing to help Israel meet the security threat it is facing from the Palestinians, from terrorism and from states that support terrorism in the region, such as Iraq and Iran.
Mr. Sharon also refused U.S. requests to turn over about $50 million in taxes and customs duties owed to the Palestinians. "I know it is their money, but they'll use it to pay people who are shooting at us," Mr. Sharon said, the official reported.
Asked if the former general's hawkish past or accusations by some Muslim groups that Mr. Sharon has committed war crimes had affected his reception by Washington, the official said, "He was elected by the Israeli people … we welcomed him."
Mr. Powell, who spoke to AIPAC yesterday morning, said U.S. support for Israel remained "rock solid."
"From the realms of politics and economics to those of security and culture, this [Israeli-U.S.] relationship is strong … and will remain rock solid," Mr. Powell said. "It is an unconditional bond that is both deep and wide, one based on history, on interests, on values and on principle."
The secretary of state laid out the principles of the Bush administration foreign policy toward the Middle East.
It differs from the Clinton policy in that the Bush administration says it will wait until the Israelis and Arabs decide for themselves on peace terms before getting active.
Mr. Bush telephoned King Abdullah of Jordan on Monday for a 10-minute discussion of the Middle East situation, spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
Lenny Ben-David, former deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy, said yesterday that Mr. Arafat again refused to condemn violence after two Israelis were shot one of them a neighbor of Mr. Ben-David in the West Bank settlement of Efrat.
"We opened the borders in Bethlehem this week and they came out shooting. Arafat shows no sign of remorse."
Another Israeli, the security chief of Kibbutz Manara near the Lebanese border, was killed, and 60 rifles were stolen from the village.
"My finger is pointed at one man only Yasser Arafat," said Israel's defense minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. Mr. Arafat is not "giving clear orders to reduce the violence."
Mr. Powell's Middle East formula yesterday called for peace talks by the parties themselves.
"Turning to the United States or other outside parties to pressure one or another party, or to impose a settlement, is not the answer," he said in a sharp change in policy from the Clinton administration.
This effectively shot down Palestinian requests, widely backed in the United Nations, for an international force to separate Israelis and Palestinians.
AIPAC heard another ringing endorsement of U.S. support for Israel from the chairman of the House International Relations committee, Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican.
"Ties between the United States and Israel have never been stronger… . Republicans and Democrats, members of the executive branch and Congress alike share a commitment to Israel's peace and security," he said.
As Mr. Sharon met with U.S. officials, he was bitterly attacked as a "war criminal" by Muslim-American groups in a meeting at the National Press Club and in a full-page advertisement in The Washington Times.
They cited his responsibility for the killings of Palestinians by Israeli troops or their Lebanese militia allies several times during Israel's battle-scarred history.

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