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Sharon compares incursions to U.S. war on terror

Sharon says the U.S. and Israel are fighting "against the same forces of evil and darkness."  

From Walter Rodgers
CNN Jerusalem Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- On the eve of his meeting with President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defended his country's military operations in the West Bank, comparing the incursions to the U.S. response to the September 11 attacks.

"There is a moral equivalency and direct connection between America's continuous operations against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Operation Defensive Shield and any other Israel Defense Forces operation to defeat terrorism," Sharon said in a speech Monday to the Anti-Defamation League.

"They are acts of self-defense against the same forces of evil and darkness bent on destroying civilized society."

Sharon was scheduled to meet Tuesday with Bush to discuss the situation in the Middle East and present what he has described as a "serious plan" for peace in the region.

Sharon said that for the plan to go forward there must be major institutional and structural reforms in the Palestinian Authority and a complete cessation of violence.

"A responsible Palestinian Authority that can advance the cause of peace should not be dependent on the will of one man," Sharon said, referring to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. He has previously said that Arafat could not be a partner in the peace process.

Bush tried to play down expectations of Tuesday's visit, saying it "is one of a series of meetings" the United States will use to try to make its vision for peace in the Middle East a reality.

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"I'm going to have a private conversation with Ariel Sharon and would rather that my conversation -- what I'm going to tell him and discuss with him ... [that] he will be first to know about it," Bush said during a visit to Michigan when asked what he would say to Sharon.

Sharon was also expected to present Bush with a report that Israeli officials claim contains proof Arafat and his close aides are linked to terrorist attacks on Israelis.

According to Israeli Cabinet Minister Danny Naveh, the 103-page dossier Sharon plans to show Bush includes copies of requests for funds, signed and approved by Arafat, for Palestinian militants later accused by Israel of carrying out terror attacks.

"This is unequivocal evidence of the involvement of Arafat and the PLO in various connections with terrorist organizations, with Saudi money that supplies it, with Iraqis, with Syria," said Ra'anan Gissin, a senior adviser to Sharon.

"The network of terrorist connections [is] so evident and so clear, action must be taken against it."

CNN was given a copy of the report Sunday, and none of the documents seemed to show a direct link between the Palestinian leadership and specific acts of violence.

White House officials told CNN that while the United States accepts some of the evidence Israel has provided, the political reality is that Arafat remains the leader of the Palestinian people and Israel will have to deal with him.

The White House meetings are expected to serve as building blocks for a coming international peace conference on the region to be attended by American, United Nations, European and Russian diplomats.

King Abdullah of Jordan will also meet with Bush this week in Washington to discuss the Middle East peace process.

"We need to sit down and talk to each other," King Abdullah of Jordan said.  

Abdullah told CNN Monday night that a key issue in the talks would be agreeing to reasonable time frames for establishing a Palestinian state and Arab nations' acceptance of Israel.

"The problem we've had with all of these conversations is they're all left somewhat open-ended," Abdullah said.

"Is there going to be a Palestinian state? Well, if it's going to take 10, 15 years to talk about it, then we're never going to move forward."

He said that once those principles are settled it will be easier to settle details such as borders and the fate of refugees.

"At the same time, it gives us moderate countries the ammunition we need to be able to fight terrorism even more," Abdullah said.

"Because at that point, when peace and a future Palestinian state is within the grasp of Palestinians and Arabs, it allows us the ability to talk to our peoples that we have to fight terrorism, because they're going to be the ones who are going to sidetrack the issue."

Abdullah also said that violence is not going solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, bring about a Palestinian state or bring security to Israel.

"We need to sit down and talk to each other," Abdullah said. "It's just so sad to hear ... extremist views that all they talk about is violence, on either side. We have to get beyond that."

Abdullah met Monday with Secretary of State Colin Powell and has a meeting scheduled Wednesday with Bush at the White House.

Bethlehem deal reportedly reached

Meanwhile, a resolution to the 35-day standoff between 123 Palestinians holed up inside the Church of the Nativity and the Israeli military has been reached, a Palestinian inside the church told CNN.

An Israeli soldier takes cover in Bethlehem's Manger Square.  

Under the accord, Palestinian leaders have agreed to send 13 militants inside the church to exile in Italy, and another 26 to Gaza, where they could face trial, said Aziz Halil Mohammed Abayed, a Palestinian pharmacist who has been inside the church and said he would be one of those exiled to Italy. (Full story)

The standoff at the church, built on the site that Christian tradition holds is the birthplace of Jesus, began on April 2 in the midst of the Israeli offensive in the West Bank against Palestinian militias behind recent terror attacks.

Israeli defense officials have said that as soon as the standoff ends Israeli troops would withdraw from the city and nearby Beit Jala.

Last week, Israeli troops pulled back from Arafat's compound in Ramallah when six Palestinians wanted by Israel were transported to a jail in Jericho under international supervision, leaving Bethlehem as the last standoff to be solved.

While Israeli troops have pulled back from cities previously under Palestinian Authority security and administrative control, they have formed cordons around those cities and have re-entered several cities to block what the Israeli army said were terror attacks in the planning.

-- CNN Correspondent Jerrold Kessel contributed to this report.




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