- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2002

President Bush yesterday rejected a request by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to sever all ties with Yasser Arafat, although he said he would "continue to keep pressure" on the Palestinian leader to end terrorism in the Middle East.

During his fourth meeting with Mr. Sharon, the president indicated he believed Mr. Arafat was culpable in the recent shipment of arms to Palestinians, which was intercepted near the border.

"He must do everything in his power to reduce terrorist attacks on Israel," Mr. Bush said as he met with Mr. Sharon in the Oval Office. "And at one point in time, he was indicating to us that he was going to do so.

"And then all of a sudden, a ship loaded with explosives show up that most of the world believes he was involved with," he said. "Obviously, we were, at first, surprised and then extremely disappointed when the Karine A showed up loaded with weapons, weapons that could have only been intended for one thing, which was to terrorize."

Mr. Sharon was more blunt.

"I personally, myself and my government, regard Arafat as an obstacle to peace," the Israeli leader said. "Arafat has chosen a strategy of terror and formed a coalition of terror.

"Therefore, we believe that pressure should be put upon Arafat in order, it may be I hope, to have an alternative leadership in the future," he added.

Mr. Sharon met with the president in the Oval Office after a preliminary meeting with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

Frustrated by a series of attacks that have killed Israeli civilians as late as yesterday, Mr. Sharon had hoped Mr. Bush would cut ties with Mr. Arafat.

Although the president turned down Mr. Sharon, he continued to keep Mr. Arafat at arm's length. Mr. Bush refused to meet with the Palestinian leader, who was invited to the White House more than any other world leader during the Clinton era.

Despite its deep reservations about Mr. Arafat, the Bush administration fears that severing all ties to him might irrevocably close off a diplomatic avenue that could prove useful in the future. Still, the White House ultimately would prefer to deal with a successor to Mr. Arafat, whose inability to rein in terrorism has diminished his stature since September 11.

"I assured the prime minister that we would continue to keep pressure on Mr. Arafat to convince him that he must take serious, concrete, real steps to reduce terrorist activities in the Middle East," Mr. Bush said. "Mr. Arafat has a chance to do so, and my hope is that he responds in a positive way."

Even Mr. Sharon is not averse to negotiating with other members of the Palestinian Authority. He recently met in Jerusalem with several of Mr. Arafat's top deputies, although he did not publicly disclose the meeting until three days later.

Mr. Arafat remains largely confined to his office complex in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The complex is surrounded by Israeli tanks, although Mr. Arafat has been allowed to travel within the city. Additional Israeli forces bar him from traveling abroad.

Yesterday, both Mr. Bush and Mr. Sharon expressed their support for a Palestinian state, although Mr. Sharon said that will not happen until Palestinians take "several steps" toward ending terror. He said these must include "a series of arrests of the terrorists, dismantling terrorist organizations and their infrastructure, collecting their weapons, that should be handed to American representatives and destroyed out of the Palestinian Authority area.

"Once they take serious preventive steps and stop completely incitement, then we will start negotiations," Mr. Sharon added. "And at the end of the process, I believe we'll see a Palestinian state. But only at the end."

The two leaders also discussed ways to help Palestinian civilians who are living in squalor and the constant threat of violence.

"We budgeted money to go through nongovernmental organizations to help. And I think the world understands that there are a lot of folks over there who suffer because of the terrorist activities of a few," Mr. Bush said.

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