Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon found lots of common ground on Tuesday with US President George W. Bush regarding his guarded approach to peace with the Palestinians, but Bush left it unclear whether PLO chief Yasser Arafat would get his own invite to the White House soon.
In their first meeting since each took office, Bush assured Sharon his administration is ready to facilitate peacemaking in the Middle East, but will not impose solutions on Israel, giving the visiting premier wide latitude to pursue his skeptical approach toward negotiations with the Palestinians. In a brief joint appearance before the press, Bush said, "I told him that our nation will not try to force peace, that we will facilitate peace and that we will work with those responsible for peace."
This message was expected, but encouraging nonetheless to Sharon, who stressed throughout his busy two-day round of appointments with senior administration officials and members of Congress the need to pressure Arafat to condemn and fight terrorism before peace negotiations are possible. With Bush at his side, Sharon said, "The first thing and the most important one is to bring security to the citizens of Israel... Once we reach security and it will be calm in the Middle East, I believe that we'll start with our negotiations to reach a peace agreement."
Bush and Sharon agreed that serious negotiations could not start until the violence decreases and that Arafat should do more to bring it under control. They also shared their mutual concerns about the threats posed by terrorism and the development of advanced weapons by Iraq and Iran.
Perhaps the biggest question of the day was whether Sharon has persuaded Bush not to invite Arafat to Washington. Sharon told reporters afterwards that he had not pressed Bush on the issue, but did suggest "it could be interpreted as a sign that terrorism pays."
Bush responded that he had not decided yet, adding the US did want to stay engaged in the Middle East and encourage dialogue. He acknowledged upcoming meetings with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II next month. The White House later noted that they were already in contact with the Palestinian leader by telephone and other means.
Reacting to news on Monday of renewed terrorist attacks back in Israel, Sharon has already publicly called on all world leaders to isolate Arafat until he makes an effort to halt the violence.
Besides an invite to Arafat, the other big question was whether the US was pushing Sharon to ease economic restrictions on the Palestinians before the violence ended. Administration officials said "trying to restore economic health will help to create the atmosphere which will make it possible to reduce violence and fight terrorism."
Bush and Sharon first shared an hour-long lunch with US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Israeli ambassador to Washington David Ivry. This was followed by a brief session with the media and another meeting in the Oval Office with their advisors.
Sharon emerged upbeat, saying that both sides had agreed not to take any action in the Middle East that would "surprise" the other. The comment was elicited when Sharon was asked about the recent US/British air strikes on Iraq, which came without any notice to Jerusalem.
Sharon noted that he will try to ease economic restrictions on Palestinians not involved in terror, as demanded by Washington, but added he told Bush "don't be surprised, we will punish the terrorists and those who send them." Sharon cited terrorism as the main cause of instability in the region.
Sharon said, "I'm a great supporter of the president's policy of keeping stability in the Middle East -- the main danger to stability is terror, and that, I believe, should be the common goal of every democratic country in the free world.
A beaming Bush warmly recalled his helicopter ride with Sharon over Judea/Samaria in December 1998 when the two first met, and said, "I've got great confidence in the prime minister... so do the Israeli people. He got 66 percent of the vote. He did a little better at the polls than I did, if you know what I mean," joked Bush.
Bush clarified that while he intended to keep his campaign promise to "begin the process of moving the US Embassy" to Jerusalem, ultimately the fate of the city would have to be decided by the parties through negotiations.
Sharon said he raised the issues of convicted spy for Israel Jonathan Pollard and renewed US assistance in gaining the release of the Israeli POW's and MIA's.
The White House denied the two addressed US demands that Israel release tax rebates owed to the Palestinians and the use of American weaponry in targeted killings of Palestinian terrorists.
In the one down note of the day, the State Department criticized Israel's approval of plans to build hundreds of new apartments at Har Homa in southern Jerusalem. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. "We have urged both sides to refrain from unilateral actions." Sharon reportedly assured Bush of his interest in "avoiding things that would escalate the situation."
Sharon has promised not to begin any new settlements, but has said that he will allow the "natural growth" of existing ones. Israeli officials emphasized that the construction at Har Homa and building inside present settlement boundaries do not violate any commitments to the US or in the Oslo accords.
A White House spokesman said Bush stressed to Sharon his view that "violence is a dead end." This echoed the words of US Secretary of State Colin Powell in a speech on Monday at the annual AIPAC policy conference, who sent a strong warning to Arafat that, "first and foremost, the violence must stop." Without naming the PLO chief, Powell said "leaders have the responsibility to denounce violence, strip it of legitimacy, stop it. Violence is a dead end."
Powell cautioned both sides to avoid unilateral actions, and said the US would not hesitate to assign blame in situations where there is one clear offender. "We will not strive for some arbitrary measure of even-handedness when responsibility is not evenly shared," he said.
"I have no magic formula to present to you for turning the current situation around," Powell told AIPAC's policy conference. He said the US was still early in the process of consulting allies and regional players on the best route back to negotiations.
Jewish leaders were disappointed that Powell did not voice support for Israel's claim to Jerusalem, nor publicly promise a US veto if the UN Security Council looks set to approve the PA's request for an armed international force to "protect the Palestinians."
In his speech to AIPAC later Monday evening, Sharon said, "Arafat and the Palestinian Authority are returning to the belief they can defeat Israel by means of armed struggle. They feel that violence will produce further Israeli concessions. Arafat is willing to destabilize the entire Middle East, including moderate Arab regimes, in order to achieve his goals... Arafat must understand, first and foremost, that he will gain nothing from violence. Israel will not negotiate while Israeli civilians and soldiers are under fire."
Sharon condemned terrorism throughout the Middle East, naming Iraq, Iran and Syria as additional threats to Israel's security.
Sharon also encouraged American Jews to make aliyah and to speak out on the ancient Jewish connection to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.
In his meeting on Monday morning with US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Sharon provided proof that official PA elements are directly involved in terrorist attacks. "Terror is the principle danger to stability in the Middle East," Sharon told Rumsfeld. "Most of the wars in the Mideast began because of terror."
Rumsfeld responded, "Israel is a small country, and you cannot allow yourselves to make big mistakes."
The two discussed Israel's outstanding request for a supplemental $800 million military aid package, but no commitments were made. White House officials, however, did note a "convergence of interests" between the two nations on theater missile defenses and national missile defense - a top priority of the new Administration.
And in a separate meeting with Rice on Monday, Sharon was reassured the US has clearly and unequivocally called upon the Palestinians to put an end to the violence. Rice also raised the idea of developing an American-led, joint US-Israeli framework for fighting terror.
Sharon was to meet congressional leaders on Capitol Hill late Tuesday, and then fly to New York for talks with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and American Jewish leaders before returning to Israel on Thursday.
In a final note before leaving Washington, Sharon criticized Egypt for playing a "negative role" in the region. "The Egyptian army is arming itself to a significant degree despite the lack of justifying threats," Sharon said.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.