Sharon says campaign in West Bank opens door to peacemaking with Palestinians

Tuesday, April 23rd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Tuesday Israel's campaign against terror on the West Bank opens the door to peacemaking with the Palestinians.

Renewing his call for an international peace conference, which President Bush is weighing, Sharon said Israel would pursue a three-point policy.

Bush, meanwhile, continued his outreach to Arab leaders by meeting at the White House with King Mohammed VI of Morocco.

First, Sharon said, there must be a complete cessation of violence and incitement to attack Israel. Then, he said, Israel would be prepared for a long-term armistice with the Palestinians. In a third stage, Israel and the Palestinians would reach a final settlement.

He said borders would be drawn, implying his approval of a Palestinian state, which Bush has been urging.

``Regional peace is within our grasp,'' Sharon said via television to the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby group. ``I am optimistic about the future.''

Israel's three-week incursion into Palestinian areas ``has opened a window of opportunity to put the peace process back on a different moralistic track, free from the threat of terrorism,'' Sharon said.

The issue of an international conference to restart the Mideast peace process was raised during Secretary of State Colin Powell's trip to the region this month. Powell said such a meeting could restore hope, but the White House has not registered enthusiasm for the idea.

``I have proposed a regional peace conference to achieve this goal'' of regional peace, Sharon said. ``A regional peace conference sponsored by the United States can create the framework and mobilities to bring about a cessation of hostilities.

``It can foster a coalition of countries committed to peace and able to defeat the forces of terrorism and evil circling our lives.''

Israel received a bipartisan boost, meanwhile, from Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the House majority whip.

``You will not hear silence, you will not hear neutrality,'' Menendez said.

Israel's military incursion into the West Bank, which European and Arab leaders have condemned and Bush is trying to end, ``was defensive in nature, no less than the United States' activities in Afghanistan,'' Menendez said.

Castigating Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, Menendez said, ``The Palestinian Authority has resorted to its terrorist past.''

DeLay called the authority ``a holding company for terrorist subsidiaries'' and, bringing the audience to its feet, said ``democracies must never negotiate with terrorists.''

Meanwhile, Powell telephoned Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin ben-Eliezer as Israeli forces pressed their campaign against terror suspects even while withdrawing from most of the West Bank.

Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card, told the AIPAC meeting Monday night that Israel and the Palestinians will have to make ``real sacrifices'' to achieve a settlement. He called on Arab countries to stop financing terror groups.

Card said Bush understands Israel is a small country that has lived under threat its entire history.

He said Bush seeks an end to terrorism as well as a peace in which Palestine and Israel exist side by side.

More than 4,000 members of AIPAC attended the dinner, along with half the Senate and about one-third of the House. Outside, several hundred people opposed to U.S. military aid to Israel assembled peacefully in the street, where a large police contingent cordoned off areas for pro-Palestinian groups and an expected pro-Israel counter-demonstration that never took place.

The protests ended four days of demonstrations in Washington centered around the now-ended spring meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

All references to Bush by Card and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the other main speaker at the AIPAC event, drew vigorous applause.

Netanyahu said ``there has never been a greater friend of Israel in the White House than President Bush.''

Bush, he said, was guided by a ``moral sense and common sense'' and brought the audience to its feet with the statement: ``At the end of the day, President Bush will do the right thing.''

Netanyahu, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, assailed the world body for accusing Israel of ``fictitious massacres'' on the West Bank while ignoring dozens of real massacres by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

``Get rid of Arafat, get rid of that regime,'' he exhorted the Bush administration. ``As long as he is there, terrorism will not stop.''

Also on Monday the State Department did not support Israel's strategy of leaving troops on the perimeter of Palestinian-held towns while pulling back from most of the West Bank.

Nor did the department support Israel's demand that the Palestinian Authority should surrender suspects in terror attacks.