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U.S. tells Sharon it opposes targeting Arafat

Israeli prime minister says he told Bush that earlier pledge is off

From John King
CNN Washington Bureau


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush White House told the Israeli government Friday that it considers "a pledge a pledge" and made clear it would oppose any Israeli effort to target Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The message was delivered during a conversation between Bush national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Dov Weisglass, the chief of staff to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, according to two senior administration sources.

That conversation took place after Sharon told Israel's Channel 2 that he no longer considered himself bound by a pledge he made to Bush at the beginning of the president's administration.

U.S. administration sources confirmed Friday that in the recent meeting, Sharon had discussed the possibility of targeting Arafat because the Israeli government asserts he has had a direct role in terrorism against Israelis.

Bush himself has said as much of Arafat. But in the meeting with Sharon, "the president reiterated his opposition to such an action," a third U.S. official told CNN.

That official, who is involved in national security matters, said Sharon's new comments were brought to the attention of the White House, and, "we have made it entirely clear to the Israeli government that we would oppose any such action and we have done so again in the wake of these remarks. We consider a pledge a pledge."

The two other officials told CNN that the fresh White House admonition was delivered by Rice in a telephone conversation with Weisglass.

In the interview, Sharon said he raised the issue with Bush in their recent meeting at the White House.

"I released myself from the commitment in regard to Arafat," he said. "I was very clear. I was committed then, and it was a different situation. When I started, Arafat was marching on red carpets laid for him by different governments in the past. Then, I accepted the commitment."

Now, Sharon said, the "commitment does not stand anymore."

He didn't disclose Bush's reaction.

It is the second time Sharon has angered White House officials since Bush publicly embraced the prime minister's plan to withdraw from Gaza and parts of the West Bank. In comments immediately after the White House meeting, Sharon said that by winning Bush's endorsement he had effectively shattered the dreams of the Palestinian people.

A visibly irritated Bush told reporters during a Rose Garden appearance with British Prime Minister Tony Blair that Sharon had assured him he believed his "disengagement plan" was the best way to reinvigorate the moribund peace process and ultimately lead to the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

White House officials for the most part attribute Sharon's tough talk to the challenge he faces in selling his plan to hard-line members of his own Likud party and to the Israeli people.

"He has a tough sell," one of the senior administration officials said. But this official also said that the administration had taken risks to help Sharon "and so it's irritating" for the prime minister to make statements that run counter to White House positions, and contribute to Arab condemnation of the Sharon plan and Bush's decision to endorse it.

Reacting to Sharon's television interview, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat accused the Israeli government of trying to destroy the peace process and the Palestinian Authority, and to kill Arafat.

"This will only create more chaos anarchy and bloodshed," he said. "It was the strongest signal yet that Israel could target Arafat."

Sharon had previously made similar comments to Israeli Army Radio, indicating Arafat and the head of Lebanon's Hezbollah were potential targets for assassination.

Hezbollah is a militant group based in Lebanon that seeks to establish a fundamentalist Muslim state. It has used unconventional attacks against U.S. and Israeli forces.

Israel recently assassinated two high-ranking members of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, blamed for scores of terror attacks against Israelis.

They were Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the group's founder, and Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the head of Hamas in Gaza. Yassin was assassinated last month and Rantisi was killed Saturday.

Hamas' military wing, Izzedine al Qassam, has admitted responsibility for terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians as well as attacks against the Israeli military.

On Thursday, four Palestinians wanted by Israel left Arafat's Ramallah compound at his request, a brother of one of them said. (Full story)


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