- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2001

President Bush yesterday told Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon he will "not try to force peace" in the Middle East and signaled that Yasser Arafat is not welcome at the White House until the Palestinian leader ends the violence.

In his first face-to-face meeting with a Middle East leader, Mr. Bush made clear he will approach the peace talks much differently than his predecessor, Bill Clinton.

"I told him that our nation will not try to force peace," Mr. Bush said to reporters as he met with Mr. Sharon in the Oval Office.

It was a veiled reference to Mr. Clinton's aggressive push for peace, which failed after high-pressure talks at Camp David last year.

"The Camp David talks … went haywire, putting Jerusalem front and center as the sort of the be-all and end-all of negotiations before it really was ripe for solution," Vice President Richard B. Cheney told The Washington Times earlier this month. "You've got to look at the situation we inherited in the Middle East and, frankly, it's a mess."

Asked by The Times yesterday whether Mr. Bush shared this view, a senior administration official who is a holdover from the Clinton White House refrained from criticizing his former boss.

"A discussion of what happened in the past I think is for historians to do at a later date," said the official, who spoke with reporters in the White House briefing room on the condition of anonymity.

"The situation is also significantly different now than it was six months ago," he added. "We have a very volatile region in which the chances of further escalation of violence and further tragedies are very high."

Mr. Sharon blames Mr. Arafat for much of the ongoing bloodshed. Yesterday, he was asked whether the Palestinian leader is a threat to the future stability of the region.

"I don't think that I have to add about Arafat," said Mr. Sharon. "Everyone knows what are the steps of terror and who is behind the steps. I don't think I have to add anything about that. It's clear."

Mr. Sharon called the United States "a partner in the struggle" against terror.

"I'm a great supporter of the president's policy of keeping stability in the Middle East," he said of Mr. Bush. "I understand the policy of this great democracy, the United States, is that one should not surrender to terror and pressure and violence."

Asked whether he would invite Mr. Arafat to the White House, Mr. Bush said: "I haven't made up my plans on who I'm going to meet with yet."

The senior administration official said of Mr. Arafat: "We have made clear our view that the chairman should do all he can in order to reduce the level of violence; that violence only increases the dangers for everyone; and that he, obviously, as the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, has an important role, a key role to play in trying to bring about a reduction in violence."

Pressed on whether this was a condition that must be met before Mr. Bush would invite Mr. Arafat to the White House, the official said: "I'm not laying out any conditions. I'm laying out what is obvious in order to get this level of violence down."

During the Clinton administration, Mr. Arafat visited the White House at least a dozen times, more than almost any head of state. Though he has not yet been invited to the Bush White House, the administration has been careful to communicate with him in other ways.

"I want to remind you that the president spoke on the phone recently with Yasser Arafat," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said. "And Secretary [of State Colin] Powell visited with Arafat."

As Mr. Bush plans White House visits with other Arab leaders, Mr. Arafat remains conspicuously absent from the invitation list.

"As with any invitation with a foreign leader, when we have something to announce, we will inform you," Mr. Fleischer said.

Although Mr. Bush has made clear he will not overplay America's hand in the peace process, he hastened to add that his administration stands ready to be helpful.

"I assured the prime minister my administration will work hard to lay the foundation of peace in the Middle East," he said. "I will do everything we can to help calm nerves, to encourage there to be dialogue in a peaceful way."

Mr. Clinton was considered ideologically aligned with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, a fellow liberal. Mr. Bush is viewed as sympathetic to Mr. Sharon, a fellow conservative.

"The prime minister and I had met before I took a tour of the West Bank by helicopter and he was my guide," the president said, gesturing to the Israeli leader. "You didn't think you were going to be prime minister and you probably darn sure didn't think I was going to be the president."

Mr. Bush added: "I've got great confidence in the prime minister and so do the Israeli people. He got 66 percent of the vote. He did a little better at the polls than I did."

Mr. Bush promised during his campaign to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which would add credence to the Israeli claim on the city as their eternal and indivisible capital. By contrast, Mr. Clinton tried to negotiate a deal in which Jerusalem would be divided between Israel and the Palestinians.

"The status of Jerusalem will be ultimately determined by the interested parties," Mr. Bush said yesterday, striking a more cautious note. "During the campaign, I said we'll begin the process of moving our embassy to Jerusalem."

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