WASHINGTON, March 20 (JTA) On his first visit to Washington since his election six weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon apparently heard what he had hoped to hear: The Bush administration will not try to push Israelis and Palestinians toward peace and agrees that Israel can not negotiate until violence ceases.
Meeting at the White House on Tuesday, President Bush told Sharon that he would work with other Middle East countries to “give peace a chance,” but could not impose peace on the region.
“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,” Bush said after meeting Sharon.
Sharon said he felt he didn’t have to convince Bush that Israel will not negotiate under threat of Palestinian attacks.
“I think what I understand” to be “the policy of this great democracy, the United States, is that one should not surrender to terror and pressure and violence,” Sharon said. “And therefore, I don’t have to work too hard on this thing. I even didn’t try.”
Sharon and Bush discussed strengthening existing channels of communication between the United States and Israel, according to Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
Sharon also told Bush that Israel faces a dilemma: It relaxed the closures on West Bank cities as the United States and the international community had demanded only to face an escalation in terror attacks. For the time being, however, Sharon does not plan to reinforce the closures on the territories.
Sharon reiterated his promise to separate between terrorists and the Palestinian general population, perhaps alluding to a policy of targeted attacks.
Bush, meanwhile, said he hadn’t decided whether to invite Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to the White House Arafat visited the Clinton White House more than any other foreign leader despite a report in Ha’aretz that senior State Department officials are urging Bush to do so.
White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer clarified that Bush is considering inviting Arafat and spoke to the Palestinian leaders several weeks ago, but that no official plans for an invitation have been made.
Sharon told Bush that the international community must send a message to Arafat that terrorism and violence do not pay, Regev said.
At the same time, however, Bush backtracked from comments he made during his campaign that indicated support for Israeli control of Jerusalem.
“The status of Jerusalem will be ultimately determined by the interested parties,” Bush said. “During the campaign, I said we’ll begin the process of moving our embassy to Jerusalem.”
For Sharon, the Bush meeting followed a day of talks with key administration officials and a speech to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee. At the AIPAC event, Sharon said pledged to keep Jerusalem “united under the sovereignty of Israel forever” and began to lay out plans for an interim agreement with the Palestinians.
Sharon pointed to steps being taken to ease restrictions and improve the economic situation of the Palestinians. But he made clear that he holds Arafat responsible for the continuing attacks on Israelis, and said that an end to bloodshed is a prerequisite for peace talks.
“Arafat must understand, first and foremost, that he will gain nothing from violence,” Sharon said. “Israel will not negotiate while Israeli civilians and soldiers are under fire, under threat of terror.”
But Sharon also called for a “more realistic approach of nonbelligerency and a long-term interim agreement,” distinguishing his outlook from the policy of the previous Israeli administration, which sought a comprehensive and final peace deal.
“More than ever, Israel needs security zones to protect it from the growing dangers in the Middle East,” Sharon said. “The Palestinians need contiguity and a better economic future.”
On Monday, Sharon met with U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and CIA Director George Tenet. His Tuesday meetings included Vice President Dick Cheney and congressional leaders.
Israeli sources said American officials agree that Arafat could do “much, much more” to stop the violence in the region. Sharon accused Arafat’s elite presidential guard known as Force 17 of involvement in much of the recent terrorism.
Sharon told Powell that if Arafat takes several tangible steps to quell the violence, Israel would answer with similar gestures. So far, however, Sharon’s moves to ease restrictions on the Palestinian population have been answered with increased violence.
Sharon and Rumsfeld discussed Mideast terrorism, with Sharon calling terrorism the greatest threat to regional stability, Israeli sources said.
Earlier Monday, Powell told AIPAC members that U.S. support for Israel will “remain rock solid.” While distancing himself from the Clinton administration’s policy of studied “evenhandedness,” Powell 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 Israelis and Palestinians 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 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. He later reversed course, telling Arab groups that the status of Jerusalem is up to the parties to decide.
Powell did not mention either Jerusalem’s status or the embassy move in his AIPAC speech.
On Wednesday, Sharon 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.