Sharon Seeking Support for Middle East Peace

Monday, March 19th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) -As Israel's new prime minister sought U.S. support for ending the Mideast violence, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Monday that drift in peacemaking efforts ``will only lead to greater tragedy.''

Echoing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's view, Powell told a pro-Israel lobby that ``first and foremost'' the violence that has gripped the region for six months must stop.

Sharon, who arrived in Washington Sunday night, is looking for President Bush to strongly endorse his position that peace talks should remain on hold until there is a cessation of the violence.

In what appeared to be a message to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Powell said ``leaders have the responsibility to denounce violence, strip of its legitimacy, stop it. Violence is a dead end.''

Powell told a friendly, sometimes cheering, audience at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference that ``both sides require a dialogue that will lead to mutually acceptable political economic and security arrangements.''

Reflecting Sharon's offer of limited agreements, in sharp contrast to the push of his predecessor, Ehud Barak, and the Clinton administration for an overall settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, Powell said the goal could be transitional, ``partial or whole.''

Powell, who interspersed a few words of Yiddish he learned growing up in the South Bronx, said to a standing ovation that the Bush administration would try to make sure Israel maintains a military edge over its Arab neighbors.

``The United States has a vital interest in the security of Israel,'' Powell said.

But while Powell pledged U.S. assistance, but not pressure, in Mideast peacemaking, he said, again to applause, ``We will not strive for some arbitrary measure of evenhandedness.''

Bush telephoned King Abdullah of Jordan on Monday morning to discuss for about 10 minutes the Mideast peace situation, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. Bush also assured the king he hopes a U.S.-Jordan free trade agreement ``can be done in a reasonable time frame.''

Just hours after Sharon arrived in Washington Sunday, an Israeli motorist was killed in a drive-by shooting in the West Bank near Bethlehem, and Palestinians fired mortar shells from the Gaza Strip into Israel. The body of a kibbutz security chief was found near Israel's northern border with Lebanon, and officials said his killing apparently was politically motivated.

Sharon was elected last month on a platform of restoring security to Israel, and he has demanded an end to the six-month Palestinian uprising before sitting down at the negotiating table.

``An attempt to achieve a diplomatic arrangement can be done only when there will be quiet,'' Sharon told reporters aboard his flight from Jerusalem, before the latest outbreak of violence. ``I want to conduct negotiations, and it's possible, but we can't when there is terror.''

Sharon had expressed willingness, however, to give the Palestinians time before escalating Israel's response to the violence. ``We need patience,'' he said. ``After not acting for so long to prevent terror, they have to get organized. I'm willing to give them time, but not unlimited time.''

In nearly six months of conflict, 430 people have been killed: 352 Palestinians, 59 Israeli Jews and 19 others.

Sharon is slated to meet with Bush on Tuesday at the White House, then with Vice President Dick Cheney and congressional leaders. He was holding separate talks Monday with Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, CIA Director George Tenet and Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.

While Sharon says he is prepared to renew peace talks, his stated aim is a measured, interim accord rather than the kind of sweeping, comprehensive peace pact which was sought by his predecessor, Ehud Barak.

Barak offered the Palestinians a state in most of the West Bank and Gaza and a share of Jerusalem. The Palestinians balked at the deal because Israel would not hand over a key Jerusalem shrine and refused to agree that millions of refugees had the right to return to its territory.

The Palestinians say negotiations should resume at the point they broke off under Barak, even though no accord was reached.

So far, the Bush administration has appeared supportive of Sharon's position.

Powell told the Israelis in his visit to the region last month that proposals raised by Barak and former President Clinton were no longer on the table.

Arriving in Washington, Sharon told reporters that meetings between Israeli and Palestinian security officials would continue in the next few days. He spoke before the killing Monday of an Israeli settler in a drive-by shooting in the West bank.

During his flight, the prime minister again accused Force 17, the bodyguard unit of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, of involvement in attacks against Israel.

``There is no doubt that Force 17, (Arafat's) personal guard, is involved today, perhaps more than any other organization, in terror activities,'' he said.

The State Department criticized Israel last week for its security closure in the Palestinian areas, saying it may not be justified in some cases and is strangling the Palestinian economy.

The meeting with Sharon was part of a busy foreign policy week for Bush. He was conferring with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori on Monday, Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen on Thursday and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Friday.