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Sharon Seeks Understanding in Washington
Israel's new Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has arrived in Washington for his first official visit with the Bush Administration, leaving behind the traditional "shopping list" of Israeli defense needs and yet another surge of Palestinian terrorism.
Before departing Jerusalem on Sunday, Sharon claimed he already has American support for his policy of not negotiating with the Palestinians under fire, and that the round of introductory talks with US President George W. Bush and his senior aides will be used to share views on reducing Middle East tensions. The full agenda will focus primarily on how to manage the conflict with the Palestinians, to keep it from spreading and from undermining US efforts to contain Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Also up for discussion is the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the region and the plight of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. Meanwhile, in a break with tradition by Israeli premiers on their initial US visits, Sharon is not expected to press hard for the IDF's current wish list for American weapons, including an ageing request for an $800 million special aid package left stymied in Congress by the retired Clinton Administration.
In an effort to keep things quiet while abroad, Sharon sent PLO chief Yasser Arafat a note late last week threatening the renewal of tough measures if violence flared again. And press reports indicate he authorized Israeli military commanders to resume contacts in recent days with Palestinian security officials to discuss ways to restore calm.
But by the time the Israeli leader landed in Washington Monday morning, Palestinian terrorists in Gaza had fired three mortar rounds on an IDF base just across the border fence inside Israel and a Jewish motorist was ambushed and killed by gunmen in the Gush Katif bloc south of Bethlehem.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, acting prime minister in Sharon's absence, said this morning that Israel viewed the Gaza mortar attack "with grave severity." Soon after, the IDF re-imposed a tight security closure on Bethlehem, eased just last Thursday. Numerous Israeli leaders emphasized today that Arafat and his Palestinian Authority were doing absolutely nothing to curb the attacks.
Sharon will use the fresh instances of terrorism to deliver this same message in meetings on Monday with CIA Director George Tenet, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Later this evening, Sharon speaks at the annual AIPAC policy conference and will meet on Tuesday with Bush at the White House and Vice President Dick Cheney and congressional leaders on Capitol Hill.
Since taking office two weeks ago, Sharon has accused Arafat's Fatah faction and his elite bodyguard unit Force-17 with orchestrating violence. Israeli security forces have recently arrested more than a dozen Palestinians linked to PA security forces and suspected of carrying out attacks. Sharon will pass on evidence of official PA complicity in terrorism to the Bush team, which seems to be increasingly on the same page with Israel on the issue.
Sharon told his Cabinet shortly before leaving yesterday that the Americans agreed peace efforts should not take place under the shadow of "terror and violence," adding there are indications European countries are coming to understand this as well. At a short send-off ceremony at Ben-Gurion, Sharon emphasized the "deep friendship between Israel and the US... [based on] common values, a commitment to democratic values, freedom, peace, and common interests."
Speaking to reporters on board his flight, Sharon stressed, "An attempt to achieve a diplomatic arrangement can be done only when there will be quiet. I want to conduct negotiations, and it's possible, but we can't when there is terror." And once on the ground in Washington, Sharon addressed the news of overnight attacks by saying he "regretted" the PA had not responded more positively to the easing of IDF blockades on Palestinian areas.
Sharon's entourage does expect to face some tough questions from US officials over Israel's stiff economic restrictions on Palestinians, refusal to release tax rebates owed the PA and use of US-supplied weapons systems to target active terrorists. These issues have been raised internationally and by pro-Palestinian lobby groups in recent meetings with Powell and other Bush aides. The Administration has said it wants to strengthen Israel's security and the Palestinian economy at the same time, while also looking at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the broader context of the regional threats posed by Iraq and Iran.
On Friday, Bush telephoned Syrian dictator Bashar Assad as part of the "stop Saddam" drive and to assure Damascus of US intentions to pursue peace in the Middle East. But Sharon has said he is reluctant to conduct negotiations on two fronts at once, and that he considers the Palestinian track as taking priority over the Syrian one at present. He also will bring up Assad's increased support for Hizb'Allah in his meetings with the Americans.
Syria, on the other hand, appears interested in improving ties with the US, especially to defuse American opposition to its bid to land a seat on the UN Security Council next fall. Although Damascus began allowing Iraq to export oil through Syria and paid revenues directly to Baghdad, this policy was reversed when Powell came calling during his regional tour a few weeks ago. Powell reportedly got Assad to agree to pay the monies into the escrow account that funds the UN's oil-for-food program.
Interestingly, Iraq now wants to transfer millions of dollars in the UN escrow fund to Arafat to help support the fight against Israel. Saddam is trying to turn the focus of the Arab League summit in Amman next week towards the Palestinian front and away from himself.
Arafat is following suit, touring the Arab world this week to lobby for the nearly $1 billion in financial support pledged at the Arab summit last October. He journeyed to Amman today, before heading for other regional capitals. However, PLO efforts to arrange a milestone pre-summit meeting in Damascus between Arafat and Assad fell through.
Arafat also expects the Arab states to back his demands at the UN Security Council for an international force to "protect the Palestinians" and a special session to condemn the Israeli closures. The PLO hopes victories at the UN and Arab summit will "inform the US of the dangers of Israeli reluctance of implementing UN resolutions," PA Minister Nabil Sha'ath warned.
The US, on the other hand, will likely veto any anti-Israel resolutions at the UN and trust that "moderate" Arab states will pressure the Palestinians to calm the situation, while also backing a new series of proposed "smart sanctions" against Iraq.
At the end of the day, Sharon's visit to Washington comes with the Bush administration still undecided on key personnel and policy directions regarding the Middle East. There are disagreements between Powell and the Pentagon, for instance, over Iraqi policy and mid-level defense and diplomatic appointments. The new Israeli premier has a unique opportunity to shape those decisions, even at a time when the latest Palestinian terrorism has focused the spotlight on Arafat, who is leaning ever harder on Saddam - the number one nemesis of the Bush White House.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.