- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 16, 2002

President Bush, trying to keep Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon out of the U.S.-Iraq conflict, today will privately outline his plan to protect Israel from Iraqi missile strikes should the United States decide to use military force against Saddam Hussein.
That effort is expected to be a hard sell: Mr. Sharon has privately told senior administration officials that he plans to retaliate if Saddam attacks Israel, as the Iraqi leader did during the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
The afternoon White House meeting of the two leaders comes amid new tensions between the Bush administration and Israel, one of the staunchest U.S. allies supporting military action in Iraq.
The administration recently warned Mr. Sharon not to stir up tensions with the Palestinians, while the prime minister asserts he is dealing with "terrorism" as he employs retaliatory and offensive strikes against Yasser Arafat.
In exchange for Israel's forbearance, the president is expected to pledge that the United States will shield Israel from Iraqi missiles and biological or chemical weapons.
But Israeli government officials told the Israeli daily Ha'aretz newspaper that Mr. Sharon will not guarantee he will stay out of the war, especially if there is a chemical or biological attack. Instead, he will promise Mr. Bush that Israel will coordinate with the United States if it decides to retaliate.
"If the United States takes care of the missiles, there will be no need for Israel to act," said a senior Israeli official.
While Mr. Sharon said last week "if Israel is attacked, it will protect its citizens," he has also said in earlier interviews that Israel might not retaliate if casualties from a missile strike were low.
Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles with conventional warheads at Israel in the 1991 conflict, causing few casualties but heavy damage in the Tel Aviv area. When Israel refrained from retaliating, the United States deployed Patriot anti-missile batteries to prevent further strikes.
As the United States readies for possible military action in Iraq, the administration wants Israel to refrain from operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which would anger Arabs and drain what little support there is in the Middle East for ousting Saddam.
Sources inside Mr. Sharon's office said the prime minister would bring Mr. Bush information showing that Palestinian militants planned to step up attacks in Israel soon, according to Ha'aretz.
Yesterday, Israeli troops fatally shot a Palestinian in Tulkarm, in the northern West Bank, Palestinian security officials said. That followed an attack last week which drew rare U.S. condemnation in which a tank, infantry and helicopter raid in the densely populated Gaza Strip to capture three militants killed 17 Palestinians and wounded about 80, some of them civilians.
On the other hand, Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Israeli troops could pull out of the West Bank town of Hebron by the end of the week if the situation there remains calm.
"I hope that around the weekend this will happen, if the conditions are right," Mr. Ben-Eliezer told Army Radio.
The United States has been pressing Israel to pull out of at least one of the six West Bank cities it still holds after taking over seven cities in June. It had already pulled out of Bethlehem, but maintains a military presence there and often imposes tight curfews on the rest.
Yesterday, Mr. Sharon raised the rhetoric, urging Palestinians to install new leaders and replace the present ones, whom he denounced as "murderous gangs."
"To achieve peace, the regime of murder must be replaced with a regime of peace," he said.
Addressing the Iraqi threat, Mr. Sharon said Israel was "ready for every scenario our enemies plot against us."
This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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