Sharon's U.S. visit cut short
Word of bombing came during White House talks
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cut short his visit to the United States after word came Tuesday of the terror attack that killed 15 people at a billiard hall near Tel Aviv.
Sharon was flying home to Israel overnight and planned to meet Wednesday with his Cabinet to decide on a response to the suicide bombing.
The Israeli leader had come to the United States to talk to President Bush about the stop-and-start Mideast peace process -- a process almost certainly dealt a new blow by Tuesday's attack in Tel Aviv.
Bush met with Sharon at the White House on Tuesday. During their meeting, Sharon and Bush were told there had been an incident near Tel Aviv, but they did not know when they spoke to reporters that the incident was a suicide bombing in which many Israelis were killed.
Later, after they learned details on the bombing, Bush was able "to personally convey his condolences to the prime minister ... and to register his disgust at this wanton taking of innocent life," said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
At a news conference before leaving the country, Sharon blamed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for the attack and told Vice President Dick Cheney: "This is not the kind of action that Israel could not respond to in the most serious way."
"Israel will act like any other democracy which fights the forces of darkness. Israel will continue to uproot the terrorist infrastructure," Sharon said. He said the recent Israeli military offensive in the West Bank has made progress in combating terrorism, but Tuesday's attack shows "our work is not done."
"The battle continues, and will continue until all those who believe that they can make gains through the use of terror will cease to exist," he said.
Sharon said he holds Arafat responsible because he "stands at the head of terror."
"There is no way to move forward on the political process with a terrorist and corrupt entity," he said. "Today, in the face of all of our sincere efforts to move forward on the political path, we received another proof of the true intentions of the person leading the Palestinian Authority."
But chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said the Palestinian Authority and Arafat condemned the attack "in the strongest possible terms."
Meeting with reporters earlier -- before word came of the terror bombing -- Bush said he and Sharon "had a really good conversation about how to get on the path of peace."
"I want peace. Our government wants peace. The prime minister is interested in peace, of course. And we had a good discussion about how to move forward."
Sharon, calling Israel a "peace-seeking country," said the Israelis' recent military offensive in the West Bank against the "infrastructure of terror" has cleared the way for progress.
"I believe that there is a chance now to start and move forward," he said.
Sharon came to Washington with a new peace plan that reportedly calls for a regional or international conference leading to a series of long-term interim agreements and then negotiations for a final settlement, including establishment of a Palestinian state. His plan also reportedly calls for erecting physical buffer zones to separate the Palestinians from the Israelis.
In their joint meeting with reporters, the two leaders offered few specifics of the proposals Sharon brought with him. But Bush did announce that he was sending CIA Director George Tenet back to the Mideast to help the Palestinian Authority develop a "unified security force that will transparent and held accountable."
No date has been set for Tenet's trip.
In addition to his peace proposal, the Israeli leader also brought with him a report the Israelis say links Arafat directly to terrorist activity. Buttressed by that report, Sharon was expected to tell Bush that Israel will no longer deal with him.
Bush administration officials said before the meeting that the U.S. position is that the Israelis are going to have to deal with Arafat if they want to make progress. But asked if he thought Israel should negotiate with Arafat, Bush said, "I'm never going to tell my friend the prime minister what to do or how to handle his business. That's his choice to make. He's a democratically elected official."
"I have been disappointed in Chairman Arafat. I think he's let the Palestinian people down. I think he's had an opportunity to lead to peace, and he hasn't done so," Bush said.
Bush reiterated his position that an independent Palestinian state should be the ultimate goal of the peace process. But Sharon said, "It's still premature to discuss this issue" until the Palestinian Authority carries out reforms.
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