Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President George W. Bush expressed sharply differing views yesterday during a photo opportunity at their meeting at the White House. The brief exchange with reporters highlighted a disagreement over how to proceed with the peace process amid continuing violence. "Progress is being made," Bush said, referring to the battered US-brokered cease-fire. "I am here to tell the Prime Minister, I know there's a level of frustration, but there is progress being made." Pressed to explain why the administration wants to move ahead with a timetable for implementing the Mitchell report before violence has ended, Bush said, "Both parties will understand when the level of violence has gotten down to the point where there can be some progress. We just want to make sure that there's a realistic assessment of what is possible on the ground. And we believe that at some point in time we can start the process of Mitchell." The report of an international commission led by former US senator George Mitchell calls for a cease-fire, a cooling-off period, confidence building measures including a freeze on Jewish settlement activity, and finally a resumption of peace talks. Sharon's reply was immediate: "The Israeli position is that we can negotiate only, and we would like to negotiate only when there will be a full cessation of hostilities, terror, violence and incitement. Otherwise, I don't think we'll be able to reach peace."
US officials said the President urged Sharon to declare a cooling-off period regardless of whether violence has completely ceased. After the meeting, Sharon said he wants 10 days without violence before beginning the next stage, the cooling-off period. Previously, he had talked about a violence-free period but had not spelled out the 10-day concept. "One should not compromise with terror," Sharon said. And therefore, I believe that...we [should] stick to what we have been saying for such a long timeâ€”that it should be a full cessation of terror before we move to the other phase." The Prime Minister acknowledged differences with President Bush on a settlement freeze. Sharon said he objects to the call for a complete freeze in construction, saying the platform of his government allows for "natural growth" in the communities. "I think the American government has a different stand," Sharon said in an interview with Israel's Army Radio. He said the disagreement is "legitimate and does not hurt relations between the countries...I think the important achievement is that there is full trust between the sides [Israel and the United States], and that, in my view, is more important than agreement."
The Palestinians, who have been trying to force Sharon to negotiate under fire, were pleased with the outcome of the meeting. "We appreciate the objective and balanced position that President George W. Bush expressed in his meeting with Sharon and we consider it a starting point to enhance security and to start peacemaking," said Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, a senior aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said the US should pressure Sharon to abide by the cease-fire drawn up by CIA chief George Tenet. "In fact Sharon, since the first day, had refused to start implementing the work plan of Mr Tenet, mainly to set a timetable for lifting the closure around the Palestinian cities, towns and areas, and there are other measures that were included in Tenet's plan." The Palestinians also continue to press for international intervention. Whatâ€™s needed is "an international monitoring and observation committee...to supervise the implementation of a timetable and any future agreement," Abed Rabbo said. "We do not trust Sharon and his promises and we do not think he will comply with any timetable." The Palestinians want the US to pressure Israel to freeze Jewish settlement activity within six weeks, before a complete end to hostilities.
Secretary of State Colin Powell arrives in the Middle East today for a brief mission aimed at cementing the cease-fire. President Bush said he was sending Powell to the region to "make sure there is a realistic assessment of what is going on." His comments were interpreted by the Israeli media as meaning that Sharon's demand for a complete cessation of violence is unrealistic. Powell is to meet five Middle East leaders in three days, starting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Alexandria today. "At this point the effort is to get them to reduce the violence and get on with the work of the Mitchell committee report," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. Powell spends Thursday in Israel and the Palestinian territories, flies to Jordan on Friday to see King Abdullah and then to Paris to see Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. US officials are playing down expectations for the Powell mission. Given the precarious nature of the truce, Powell may end up simply pressing Arafat to crack down on violence, and Sharon to refrain from retaliation.