Prime minister wants Bush to sever contacts with Arafat

Saturday, February 2, 2002

JERUSALEM -- Ariel Sharon held secret talks with three senior members of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's inner circle this week, the first such meeting since he became Israeli prime minister a year ago, a Palestinian official said Friday. Sharon aides declined to comment.

The meeting came amid angry exchanges, including Sharon's expression of regret that he did not order Arafat killed 20 years ago and a Palestinian Cabinet minister's retort that Sharon was the "head of a gang" trying to oust an elected leader.

In an interview published Friday, Sharon warned that he hasn't exhausted his repertoire of sanctions against Arafat and that he will ask President Bush to break off contacts with the Palestinian leader.

In Gaza, Israeli helicopters fired at least four missiles at a Palestinian naval base in the village of Dir Ballah, Palestinian security officials said, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.

The building was evacuated before the missiles struck, the officials said. There were no reports of injuries. The Israeli army did not immediately comment.

'Boycott him'

Sharon is to hold talks with Bush at the White House next week, their fourth meeting in a year. Bush has not invited Arafat since taking office.

In a statement, the army said the attack was in response to gunfire and mortar shells that were fired at army outposts in the area earlier in the day.

In the interview with the daily Yediot Ahronot, Sharon said he will advise Bush "to ignore Arafat. Boycott him. Don't have any contact with him and don't send him delegations."

Bush renewed his harsh criticism of Arafat, saying he misled the United States about an illegal shipment of Iranian weapons to the Palestinian Authority and "must do a better job" of fighting terror.

Bush also urged Arafat to assert his leadership, suggesting that the United States, unlike Israel, has not given up on him as a partner in Mideast peace efforts.

Arafat's advisers said that if Bush heeds Sharon's advice, it could further harm Washington's standing in the Arab world. They said they would watch closely to see what comes out of the meeting.

"The outcome will show us whether American policy decisions are drafted in Tel Aviv or in Washington," said Ziad Abu Zayyad, a Palestinian Cabinet minister.

Despite Sharon's tough public statements, he met Wednesday with Arafat deputy Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia and economic adviser Khaled Salam, a Palestinian official said on condition of anonymity. He said the meeting took place with Arafat's approval.

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