- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 4, 2002

The White House yesterday said new documents linking Yasser Arafat to terrorists suggest that he may have violated the 1993 Oslo peace accords but that the Palestinian leader still can redeem himself.
"Under the obligations that the Palestinian Authority agreed to, under the Oslo Accords where they agreed to renounce terrorism, this would not be consistent with that," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said.
However, the spokesman added: "The president still believes that Chairman Arafat can and should live up to the commitments made."
Mr. Fleischer also defended his boss against mounting criticism that the administration is not sufficiently engaged in the Middle East debacle. He emphasized that suicide bombers, not presidential inaction, have derailed hopes for peace.
"The violence last week is what set it back, and nobody should make any mistake about that," Mr. Fleischer said. "President Bush is deeply in the middle of this."
That response was not good enough for Sen. Arlen Specter, who slammed the administration for its decision not to send Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to the region.
"That's his job," the Pennsylvania Republican told CBS yesterday. "The secretary of state has been reluctant to move if it's not going to be successful, and I think he ought to make the effort, even if it fails."
"It's nice to go when you've got it all worked out and you can have a triumphant trip," added Mr. Specter, a member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittees on defense and foreign operations. "But you can't go to bat and expect to hit a home run every time."
The comments were echoed by James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, who led a delegation of Arab-Americans to the State Department to call for Mr. Powell's direct involvement.
Mr. Zogby, a Democrat, called the administration's policy "achingly inadequate."
Mr. Fleischer acknowledged that the crisis "has gotten to a very difficult point," adding, "This has not been an easy issue for any American president." But he suggested that while interest groups, Congress and the news media are calling for deeper presidential involvement, the public disagrees.
"The American people understand how difficult the situation is in the Middle East, how it's been an issue that has been around for decades," Mr. Fleischer said.
"It did not begin on Jan. 20, 2001," he added, referring to the president's inauguration. "And I think the American people support what the president is doing in terms of the level of engagement."
That engagement entails constant tinkering with the administration's policy. Yesterday, the White House suggested it might give up its insistence on a cease-fire as a condition to talks on a political solution.
"The United States is committed to progress on both," Mr. Fleischer said. "But realistically speaking, if you live on the ground in the Middle East today and there is so much violence, it makes it much harder to enter into meaningful political talks until the violence can be diminished, eliminated or brought under control."
Although the administration has refused to label Mr. Arafat a terrorist, it held out yesterday the possibility of discrediting him with documents that Israeli forces seized from his compound.
The documents included a letter from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade to Mr. Arafat's chief financial officer, Fuad Shobaki, requesting funds to build bombs. The terrorist group has claimed responsibility for many recent suicide bombings.
Mr. Shobaki is holed up with Mr. Arafat inside their bombed-out compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah. He was arrested earlier this year and moved to a prison in the compound after Israel seized a large shipment of illegal arms bound for the Gaza Strip.
Palestinians accused Israel of fabricating the letter and other incriminating documents.
"This is something that we will want to discuss," Mr. Fleischer said. "We have not, at this moment, seen those documents."
He added: "There's a difference between seeing something on TV and seeing them."
Also yesterday, the White House downplayed Egypt's decision to restrict diplomatic contacts with Israel.
"We anticipate that Egypt will maintain its commitment to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, which remains a foundation for regional stability," Mr. Fleischer said. "It's an example of nations that were once intractable foes, how they were able to come together."
Noting that tensions over the Middle East crisis are driving up gasoline prices, the White House is renewing its push for cutting dependence on foreign oil.
Although the Republican-controlled House has passed the president's energy plan, which would open up oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the legislation remains stalled in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
"The president views this as an issue, specifically when it comes to our over-reliance on foreign oil, as a wake-up call, a warning, especially to the United States Senate, about the need for the United States to reduce our reliance on foreign supplies of energy," Mr. Fleischer said.
"The president urges the Senate to move with dispatch when they return from recess to pass the energy plan, which provides a long-term, comprehensive structure to reduce prices," he added.
Mr. Bush plans to discuss the Middle East crisis with British Prime Minister Tony Blair when he visits the president's Texas ranch this weekend. He discussed the issue Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin and during the weekend with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.
In addition, the president has conferred in recent days with the heads of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Nations.

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