WASHINGTON — President Bush pressed Ariel Sharon on Tuesday to move forward on a U.S.-backed Middle East peace plan, but the Israeli prime minister said violence must end first. “One should not compromise with terror,” Sharon said.
The Oval Office meeting, a second for Sharon since Bush took office six months ago, highlighted their disagreement over how to proceed with a peace process amid continuing violence. It also reflected the administration’s stepped-up role in the Middle East after being accused of neglecting the region early in Bush’s term.
A fragile cease-fire hung in the balance, with Sharon under pressure at home to respond with force to violence blamed on the Palestinians. Secretary of State Colin Powell headed to the region late Tuesday to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, including Yasser Arafat.
Sitting stiffly in straight-back chairs, Bush and Sharon struggled to praise each other for working toward peace without conceding their bottom lines: Bush wants the cease-fire to hold and progress to continue toward peace talks while Sharon insists that little can be done until there is a “full cessation of hostilities.” Despite the violence, Bush said he was optimistic the peace process could resume. “We’re gaining by inches,” he said. “Progress is in inches, not miles but nevertheless an inch is better than nothing.”
An international commission headed by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell urged both sides to begin with a cease-fire before entering into a “cooling-off period,” making gestures to each other and returning to negotiations.
In advance of his meeting with Sharon, Bush advisers said the president intended to urge the Israeli to declare a cooling-off period regardless of whether violence has completely ceased. Afterward, advisers said Bush did not insist that Sharon take that next step toward peace, though he urged the Israeli to keep moving forward.
Bush himself stopped just short of calling for a cooling-off period in a public session with reporters, but suggested that Israel may not have “a realistic assessment of what is possible on the ground.” He also said, “We’re going to talk to the prime minister about his attitudes.”
Sharon was more blunt, saying peace can only be achieved if the parties are “very strict” with the Palestinians. “Israel will not negotiate under fire and under terror,” he said during the photo opportunity with Bush.
Afterward, the prime minister said he wants 10 days of no violence before beginning the next stage, the cooling-off period. Previously, he had talked about a violence-free period but had not spelled out the 10-day concept.
“One should not compromise with terror. And therefore, I believe that if we stick to what we have been saying for such a long time that it should be a full cessation of terror before we move to the other phase,” Sharon said.
He also met with Powell, who was heading to the Middle East Tuesday evening under orders from Bush to urge Arafat to “take better control of his security forces.”
Sharon was the first Middle East leader Bush invited to the White House after the U.S. election, and while several Arab leaders followed, Arafat has not been invited. There are no plans to invite him, a sign that the United States gives greater weight to Israeli positions.
Arafat was a frequent visitor when Bill Clinton was president. Palestinians have complained that the Bush administration was favoring Israel.
Both Bush and Sharon agreed that peace is possible, though they to differed on strategies. At times, Bush seemed to labor in his bid to inject Sharon with a sense of optimism.
“Progress is being made,” Bush said. “I am here to tell the prime minister, I know there’s a level of frustration, but there is progress being made.”
Pressed to explain why the administration wants to move to the next step in the Mitchell timeline before violence has ended — and, apparently, before Israel is ready to do so — Bush said, “Both parties will understand when the level of violence has gotten down to the point where there can be some progress. We just want to make sure that there’s a realistic assessment of what is possible on the ground. And we believe that at some point in time we can start the process of Mitchell.”
Sharon’s reply was immediate: “The Israeli position is that we can negotiate only, and we would like to negotiate only when there will be a full cessation of hostilities, terror, violence and incitement. Otherwise, I don’t think we’ll be able to reach peace.”