Mon Jun 10, 2002
By STEVE WEIZMAN, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - With Israeli troops surrounding Yasser Arafat's compound, President Bush said Monday that Israel has a right to defend itself and suggested conditions are not ripe for a Mideast peace conference.
Concluding his sixth meeting with Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said of Arafat "we don't see yet a partner" in peace talks.
The two leaders met in the Oval Office as Israeli tanks and troops surrounded Arafat's compound in Ramallah. Sharon came to the meeting seeking assurances that Bush doesn't move too fast toward a peace process and not demand a deadline for Palestinian statehood.
On both points, he got what he wanted for now.
Bush renewed his call for dramatic reforms of the Palestinian Authority ( news - web sites), saying the changes are needed before any progress can be made toward peace. He suggested a Mideast peace conference will not be conducted soon.
"The conditions aren't even there yet. That's because no one has confidence in the emerging Palestinian government. So first things first: Which institutions are necessary to give the Palestinian people hope and to give the Israelis the confidence that the emerging government will be someone with whom they can deal," Bush said.
Sitting at Bush's side, the prime minister reiterated his view that there must be a cessation of violence before negotiations can be fruitful. He said of Arafat: "At present time, we don't see yet a partner."
Bush was almost as dismissive, suggesting the United States is eager to find other Palestinian leaders more willing to change.
"I am disappointed that he has not led in such a way that the Palestinian people have hope and confidence," the president said.
The session is likely the last high-profile consultation meeting Bush will conduct before unveiling his own plans to jump start the embattled peace process.
Earlier, the White House defended Israel's latest assault on the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank.
"Our understanding is that the Israeli operation is limited in duration and it is to go after specific terrorists. And given that understanding, the United States has said before that Israel has a right to defend itself," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters as the two leaders prepared to meet for the sixth time in the Oval Office.
"The United States will be closely monitoring what Israel is doing and the United States again reminds Israel about the importance of remembering the repercussions of whatever action Israel takes today impacting the broader goals of achieving peace tomorrow," Fleischer added.
Sharon, who was to lunch with Bush in the White House's family dining room after their talks, will meet with congressional leaders Tuesday. He is determined to leave his imprint on evolving U.S. plans for Mideast peace expected to be announced in a few weeks. The prime minister is counseling a gradual approach in which substantive talks do not begin until the Palestinians halt attacks on Israelis, where the pace of negotiations is linked to continued calm and the most intractable disputes between the two sides are put on the back burner.
The Palestinians and most Arab countries want a timeline for negotiations and a pre-stated date for Palestinian statehood.
Hours before Sharon's appointment with Bush, Israeli troops moved into the West Bank town of Ramallah and surrounded the compound of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, an army spokesman said.
The unidentified spokesman said the soldiers were deployed to prevent gunmen from entering the compound but did not enter it themselves. Palestinians officials said Arafat was inside the compound and was unharmed.
One Palestinian was killed and two wounded in exchanges of fire, Palestinian doctors said. Two soldiers were also wounded, the army said.
Despite the flare-up, CIA Director George Tenet and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, both of whom just returned from the region and several meetings with Middle East leaders, gave the president an optimistic assessment when they briefed him over the weekend at Camp David. "They both gave the president reason to have hope that the process can move forward. ..." Fleischer said.
On Sunday, Sharon ruled out an Israeli pullback to the country's 1967 borders, the crucial element of a Saudi peace proposal endorsed by nearly all other Arab states and by the United States.
"Israel will not return to the vulnerable 1967 armistice lines, redivide Jerusalem or concede its right to defensible borders," Sharon wrote in a guest column in The New York Times.
"Defensible borders" were guaranteed by a U.N. Security Council resolution after the 1967 Six-Day War that also demanded that Israel withdraw from lands captured during that war. The Arabs interpret that to mean from all captured territory; Israel, which has returned the Sinai peninsula to Egypt and given autonomy to Palestinians in some areas, says that is not so.
In March, the Arab League adopted a Saudi proposal for pan-Arab peace with Israel in exchange for return of all captured territory: the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and traditionally Arab east Jerusalem.
Sharon appeared to have scored points even before seeing Bush. The president, who met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at Camp David, Md., on Friday and Saturday, dampened Mubarak's hopes for the United States to set a schedule for Palestinian statehood.
"We're not ready to lay down a specific calendar, except for the fact we need to get started quickly, soon, so that we can seize the moment," Bush said Saturday. A senior White House official said later, however, that while Bush is not ready to set a statehood deadline now, he has not ruled it out further down the road.
Mubarak also spoke up for Arafat, saying the Palestinian leader and his security forces have been weakened by Israeli military action. "If he's given the authority and given the tools, I think it would work," Mubarak said. "If not, the people who elected him will not accept him afterward. We should give him a chance anyway."