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White House to Press Sharon; Warm Welcome Seen in Congress

May 3, 2002
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When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrives in Washington next week, he’ll get mixed advice about Israeli policy.

The White House believes an opening is at hand to end violence and move toward peace, and is expected to pressure Israel to make sacrifices.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that an international Middle East peace conference would be held early this summer. Details of where, when and with whom remain to be determined.

There was no immediate reaction from Israel, though Sharon himself had recommended such a conference several weeks ago.

When he visits Congress, Sharon likely will get a hero’s welcome.

In anticipation of his visit, both branches of Congress passed resolutions Thursday expressing solidarity with Israel and holding the Palestinians responsible for ongoing violence.

It passed the House by a vote of 352-21.

“The United States cannot be a broker between one party that wants peace and another party that wants terrorism, DeLay said. “Every man and woman in Israel should know that they do not stand alone, because America stands with them.”

The Senate passed a milder bill, 94-2.

Debate in both houses focused on equating the U.S. war on terrorism with Israel’s military incursions in the West Bank. That mirrors the sentiment of the American Jewish community, which has been increasingly active in recent weeks trying to counterbalance Arab and European support for the Palestinians.

Since Israel invaded the West Bank in late March, the White House has sent conflicting messages about whether it believes Israel should withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza immediately or should be allowed to complete its anti-terror mission.

A day after Arafat was released from his headquarters, White House officials said Thursday they saw a window of opportunity opening, and urged both parties to take actions towards peace.

“I’m optimistic we’re making good progress,” Bush said Thursday after speaking with European leaders.

Yet he had stern messages for both sides.

“A Palestinian state must be achieved by negotiating an end to occupation, but such a state cannot be based on a foundation of terror or corruption,” Bush said.

White House officials say next week will be a “moment of truth” for Arafat.

“He’s been claiming he can’t do anything while being held up” in his compound, the official said. “He’s no longer held up.”

Bush also called on Israel to end its “occupation” of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Bush “believes that beyond Israel looking at its current security needs, Israel, too, needs to look at a vision of peace tomorrow so that they can live side by side,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

The issue of Israeli settlements also needs to be discussed “as part of the political dialogue,” he said.

Israeli officials acknowledge that Sharon will be pressured next week to do more to develop a cease-fire, especially if Arafat has taken steps to thwart violence by the time Sharon arrives.

If Arafat has done little, however, they believe Israel and the United States will be debating where the two allies can go from this point.

Sharon said Wednesday that he would bring new plans for peace and security to the United States that would include a physical separation between Israel and the Palestinian territories.

An Israeli official in Washington said Sharon’s goal will be to “pre-empt” the American agenda.

White House officials dismissed the idea that Israel would be victimized by increasing coordination between the Bush administration and Arab states.

Much has been made of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah’s meeting with Bush last week, and the media accounts of an agreement between the two parties to have the United States pressure Israel while the Arab states work with Arafat.

A White House official said Sharon is being invited to Washington to gauge his viewpoints, as part of a “back and forth” between Arab and Israeli leaders. Jordan’s King Abdullah is expected at the White House the following day.

In Congress, subtle differences emerged between the House and Senate versions of the pro-Israel bills.

The House bill urged Arab states to work against terrorism and seeks aid from the international community in helping to “alleviate the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people.”

The bill “clearly distinguishes between the side that made an historically generous offer of peace, and the side that spat on that offer and started a bloodbath instead,” Lantos said. “To those who seek a neutral stance in Israel’s struggle against terrorism, this resolution is not for you.”

Others commented that the bill also should note Palestinian victims of Israeli “terrorism.”

The House bill’s strong language led to nearly a week of delay, as the White House pressured the sponsors to postpone the legislation, claiming it would hurt U.S. efforts to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority.

But DeLay moved the bill to a vote Thursday after the Democratic Senate leadership announced it was bringing its own version to the floor despite White House objections.

The White House did ask DeLay to remove a reference in his bill to Arafat “coordinating” terrorism.

“If you say he supports it, you can still make the argument that you can negotiate with him,” a congressional staffer said of Arafat. “But saying he coordinates it would make him a terrorist, and you can’t negotiate with terrorists.”

The Senate bill was more mild than the House’s.

Unlike the House bill, the Senate version does not mention Arafat by name or link him to Palestinian violence. Several senators rose to say they wished the Senate bill was as strong as the House resolution.

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