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Visiting Sharon wants to lower peace hopes

WASHINGTON, March 19 (JTA) – While in the United States this week, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hopes to convince the Bush administration that there needs to be a more realistic approach to negotiations with the Palestinians, according to Israeli sources.

Meeting Monday with U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Sharon said Israel is willing to conduct negotiations with the Palestinians, but “one thing has to be clear: There won’t be negotiations under the threat of terror and violence,” Israeli sources said.

Rumsfeld reportedly told Sharon, “Israel is a small country and you can’t afford to make big mistakes.”

Making his first trip to the United States since being elected last month, Sharon also met on Monday with Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and CIA Director George Tenet.

Israeli sources said American officials agreed that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat could do “much, much more” to stop the violence in the region. Sharon has accused Arafat’s elite presidential guard – known as Force 17 – of involvement in much of the recent terrorism.

Sharon told Powell that if Arafat makes one or two tangible steps to quell the violence, Israel would answer with similar steps.

The prime minister also laid out a road map toward Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, emphasizing that the grand, final-status solutions sought at the end of the Clinton administration were no longer on the table and that the parties now had to focus on smaller, more tangible steps, Israeli sources said.

At the Pentagon, Sharon received full honors as he walked with Rumsfeld to observe the troops, and also received a 21-gun salute.

Sharon and Rumsfeld discussed terrorism in the region, with Sharon calling terrorism the largest threat to Mideast stability, Israeli sources said.

Sharon was scheduled to meet with President Bush on Tuesday. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush believes Israel should ease economic pressure on the Palestinians.

“The president would like to see an easing of economic pressure,” Fleischer said Monday. “The president would also like to make certain that the Palestinians take steps to end the violence.”

Sharon was to give his first address to an American audience Monday evening at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, where he was expected to outline his government’s commitment to a united Jerusalem – including the Temple Mount – under Israeli control.

Earlier Monday, Powell told AIPAC members that U.S. support for Israel will “remain rock solid.” But he was careful to avoid blaming either side for the breakdown of peace negotiations or the last six months of violence, saying the impact on both sides has been tragic.

“The net result of all of this is that Israelis have come to question whether a peaceful arrangement with the Palestinians is possible,” Powell said. “And Palestinians have come to question whether peaceful co-existence with Israel is compatible with their own political aspirations.”

Powell outlined the Bush administration’s approach toward involvement in the Middle East, but made clear that the U.S. role will be to “assist, not insist.”

“We will speak out if we hear words or see actions that contribute to confrontation or detract from the promise of negotiations,” Powell said. “We will not strive for some arbitrary measure of evenhandedness when responsibility is not evenly shared.”

Powell received several standing ovations, but the loudest and longest applause came before Powell spoke, when AIPAC President Tim Wuliger said the audience “appreciated the testimony that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.”

Powell inadvertently made that statement two weeks ago in front of the House International Relations Committee when discussing Bush’s promise to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Powell later reversed course, telling Arab groups that the status of Jerusalem should be up to the parties to decide.

Powell did not mention either Jerusalem’s status or the embassy move in his AIPAC speech.

Following his meeting with Bush on Tuesday, Sharon was to meet with congressional leaders.

On Wednesday, he was to travel to New York for an event with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

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