White House presses Arafat to crack down on terrorists
AP Diplomatic WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- As Israeli airstrikes rained on the Gaza Strip, the White House pressed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Monday to crack down -- in actions, not just words -- on the terrorists in Israel's sights.
President Bush "has believed for quite a period of time that Yasser Arafat is capable of doing much more than he has ever done and now the burden is on him even heavier to show it," said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.
"What's new and different is the severity of the violence that rocked Israel over the weekend and the outrage that the world feels about the murder of all the innocents in Israel. It's important that Chairman Arafat move beyond where he has been before -- to take concrete actions, to show that this is not the way of the future and it should not be the way of the present."
Fleischer appealed for peace talks but noticeably absent was any U.S. condemnation of the Israeli military action. "The United States supports dialogue between Israel and Chairman Arafat," he said.
The presidential spokesman, briefing reporters in the White House just as Israeli helicopters began firing missiles on the Gaza Strip, was asked if Bush is sympathetic to Israel's desire to retaliate. "Obviously, Israel has a right to defend herself and the president understands that clearly," Fleischer replied.
Bush, confronting new uncertainty about a fragile anti-terror coalition that relies on Arab support, canceled his only scheduled appearance before reporters on Monday.
Earlier Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon held emergency consultations with key Cabinet ministers to decide on an Israeli response to the weekend suicide bombings in Jerusalem and a shooting attack that killed a total of 26 people and wounded nearly 200, most of them Israelis.
"This is a real opportunity for Chairman Arafat to show in actions not words that he stands for peace, and that he will take action that is enduring and meaningful against the terrorists and those who sponsored the terrorist attacks that took place in Israel," Fleischer said.
Bush on Sunday denounced the weekend attacks as "horrific acts of murder" and conferred with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for about an hour at the White House. Sharon then flew home for a Cabinet meeting Monday.
Sharon told Bush that Israel would respond to terror as best it could, a senior Israeli official said.
There was no indication Bush had sought to persuade the Israeli leader to hold back. Arafat "must do everything in his power to find those who murdered innocent Israelis and bring them to justice," the president said.
White House officials said Bush expects Arafat to break up Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, groups that the United States believes trains and supports suicide attackers.
"You've got to go after the organizations who are conducting these kinds of acts of terror," Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation." He said that means "putting them in real jails where they are not walking free several days later." The rhetoric, a dramatic shift in tone, was meant to intensify pressure on Arafat, White House officials said.
With 25 people killed and nearly 200 wounded by three suicide bombers, Arafat ordered dozens of Islamic militants arrested and promised harsh action. But Israel was deeply skeptical, with hard-liners calling for removal of the Palestinian leader.
George Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader whose commission outlined recommendations for peacemaking that would follow a cease-fire, said Monday it is unlikely that the process would be better without Arafat. "I think there would be internal conflict and the successor could most likely be out of the factions that are creating the problems," he said on CBS' "The Early Show."
Mitchell said the latest violence could be the trigger for serious steps toward peace because "things are getting so bad that both sides will recognize that life is unbearable. ... I believe they will turn a corner because things are so bad and they can't continue with this conflict. Peace is the only alternative."
What was to have been a White House pep talk to Sharon to get started on tentative peace moves was transformed suddenly into an hourlong emergency session that shifted the burden to Arafat to prove he can end Palestinian attacks.
The meeting was moved up a day to accommodate Sharon, who flew home a few hours later to conduct the Cabinet session.
Much of what Bush and other U.S. officials said was familiar. But the tone was unusually tough. "There can be no excuse for failure to take immediate and thorough action against the perpetrators of these vile acts," Powell said.
Only a few days earlier, Powell had raised Arab hopes for new U.S. pressure on Sharon. He had described Israel's hold on the West Bank and Gaza as an occupation and said building homes for Israeli Jews there was crippling hopes for peace.
Powell also has repeatedly registered sympathy for Palestinian "frustrations."
But after speaking with Arafat by telephone he said he had made "absolutely clear that these despicable and cowardly actions must be brought to an end through immediate, comprehensive and sustained action by the Palestinian Authority."