Israeli envoys make Sharon’s case in D.C.


WASHINGTON, Feb. 14 (JTA) – The United States is calling on Israel and the Palestinian Authority to put a stop to the escalating violence in the Middle East.

The message came as a three-member delegation dispatched by Ariel Sharon visited Washington to convey to top U.S. officials the prime minister- elect’s future policies.

On Wednesday – after a Palestinian plowed his bus into a crowd at a bus stop south of Tel Aviv, killing at least eight Israelis – President Bush called for an end to the escalating violence. Bush said he called Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak after the Palestinian terror attack.

“As I told the prime minister, the tragic cycle of violent action and reaction between Israel and the Palestinians, particularly the escalation this week, needs to stop,” Bush said.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell echoed these sentiments during his meeting Wednesday with the delegation representing Sharon.

For their part, the three officials – who are serving as advisors to Sharon – told Powell that Palestinian leaders are responsible for the bus attack.

“These are not spontaneous acts of violence,” said Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. “The Israeli government has a duty and right to protect itself against terrorism.”

The three envoys – Gold, Moshe Arens and Zalman Shoval – said an end to the violence would be required before peace talks can be resumed, a point Sharon has repeatedly stated.

Powell, who also spoke Wednesday with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, told the Israeli delegation that both sides needed to take responsibility for the violence.

Powell called on the Palestinians to bring to justice people suspected of terrorist attacks and said Israelis should end the “targeted killings” of Palestinian militants, according to State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

A day before the bus attack, Israel assassinated a Palestinian security official in a pinpoint helicopter attack in the Gaza Strip. Israel said the man had been recruited by Hezbollah in Lebanon to carry out attacks against Israel from inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

On Tuesday, Boucher said the Israeli strikes, coupled with “Palestinian attacks against settlements and motorists,” are “producing a new cycle of action or reaction which can become impossible to control.”

During their meeting with Powell on Wednesday, the Israeli delegation affirmed that most, if not all, of the blame rests with the Palestinians.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, made the same point Wednesday.

“There is no political or moral equivalency between acts of terror and a surgical strike against a terrorist leader who has planned operations against civilians,” Regev told JTA.

The Israeli team met Wednesday with Vice President Dick Cheney, other Bush administration officials and Jewish members of Congress to outline Sharon’s agenda.

Sharon is considering making his own visit to the United States next month for the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Arens, a former defense minister and ambassador to the United States, is considered a possible candidate for a high-level Cabinet post, possibly his fourth turn as defense minister.

Shoval is also a former Israeli ambassador to the United States.

On Tuesday, the three held an hourlong meeting with Edward Walker, assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, and later met National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

The group is also scheduled to meet this week with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

The meetings with Walker focused on the United States and Israel’s bilateral relationship, Sharon’s plans once he forms his government and efforts for peace in the region, a State Department spokesman said.

Speaking Tuesday after the talks, Arens said he did not think there are “very big gaps between our views and the views” of the Bush administration, particularly that violence must cease before Israeli-Palestinian talks resume.

Meetings are planned Thursday with several international affairs think tanks. Also on the agenda is a speech at the National Press Club.

Powell announced last week that he would visit the Middle East later this month, his first international trip as secretary of state. He is expected to meet with Sharon, Arafat and several other regional leaders. He also expressed a desire to meet with Barak.

“The purpose of this trip will be to share views with friends in the region, especially in Israel and Gaza and the West Bank, to make an assessment of the situation,” Powell said last Friday.

Powell said his five-day trip will not be as long as he would have liked, but felt a need to keep it short because he is the only one of the Bush administration’s State Department officials to be confirmed so far.

It is unclear whether Sharon indeed will come to the United States for next month’s AIPAC conference. Israeli officials in the United States said they are beginning to plan for the trip, but expect Sharon will decide not to come if he hasn’t yet formed a government and been sworn in as prime minister.

White House officials would not comment last week on whether Sharon would meet with Bush if he does make the trip.

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