President presses Israel to negotiate with Yasser Arafat

WASHINGTON -- Israel intensified its campaign Monday to link Yasser Arafat to terror attacks in the face of the Bush administration's insistence that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon must deal with him as leader of the Palestinians.

President Bush, on the eve of White House talks with Sharon, prodded Arafat to play a constructive role to stop violence.

"He has disappointed me. He must lead. He must show the world that he believes in peace," Bush said.

Sharon called Monday for reform of the Palestinian Authority, including its security forces, and suggested it needed a new leader and more accountability. He did not call outright for the ouster of Arafat as he has in the past, possibly signaling a softening in his position.

"A responsible Palestinian Authority that can advance the cause of peace should not be dependent on the will of one man," Sharon said in a reference to Arafat in a speech to the Anti-Defamation League.

An avalanche of allegations from Israel, which also seeks to ascribe a direct role to Saudi Arabia in financing terrorists, could complicate Bush's meeting today with Sharon, as well as the administration's attempt to push Israel toward a land-for-peace deal with Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

No peacemaking formula

Secretary of State Colin Powell said the administration had not decided on a formula for peacemaking and was soliciting views of Arab and Israeli leaders "trying to determine what usefully can be achieved."

He said one approach under consideration was a series of "way stations," or interim talks, such as an international conference this summer.

At the same time, after conferring Monday with King Abdullah II of Jordan, Powell said security talks must be resumed once the standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is resolved, an agreement he hoped would be in place in a few days.

Bush plans to urge Sharon to help find ways to bolster the Palestinian security apparatus as a way of curbing terrorism so the two sides can get back to political talks, a senior U.S. official said.

Accused Saudis

Israeli officials previously had presented documents and other material seized in raids on the West Bank and obtained from captured terrorists as evidence of what the Israelis say is a direct Arafat role in supporting and sponsoring terror.

Then on Monday, officials traveling with Sharon accused Saudi Arabia of encouraging Palestinian bomb attacks against Israelis, including one that killed a U.S. citizen in 1995.

They said a committee under the auspices of the Saudi interior ministry knowingly funneled money to the families of suicide bombers, to jailed attackers and to the radical Islamic Hamas movement.

The Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, issued a statement calling the allegations "totally baseless and false, ... a smokescreen intended to distract attention away from the peace process."

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice was reviewing the documents, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

The administration, which has embraced a Saudi peace "vision," was not pleased.

"We need the Saudis right now. They need the Saudis right now," said one U.S. official. However, the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration takes Israel at its word.

Other U.S. officials were less irritated by Israel's moves before the Bush meeting, saying it's the same kind of brinkmanship the Saudis brought to the table before meeting Bush last month in Texas.

For months, Israel has given more specific intelligence information on the Palestinian Authority and terror to the Defense Department, the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and other U.S. government offices.

The information establishes a Palestinian Authority connection but not "an absolute connection of Arafat to the terrorism," said another U.S. official, speaking on condition he not be named.

The Bush administration, while expressing unhappiness with Arafat, has said Israel must deal with him as the representative of the Palestinian people.

When Sharon calls at the White House on Tuesday for his fifth meeting with the president, Bush plans to urge him to engage in serious political negotiations with the Palestinians, a senior U.S. official said.

And that means Arafat, said White House spokesman Fleischer.

"We'll always deal with other people," Fleischer said. "There's not only one person to deal with, but Chairman Arafat is the representative of the Palestinian people, as they have made clear."

The president said Israel's resistance to meeting with Arafat was an expression of disappointment in his ability to lead.

"After all, right before we had a security agreement done, a shipload of ammunition showed up that can probably be aimed at the Israeli citizens. So there is a high level of disappointment," Bush said of the attempt to smuggle 50 tons of Iranian arms to Palestinians.

Powell, who met with Sharon on Monday at the Israeli's hotel, was asked if Arafat was still relevant in peacemaking.

"Well, he's still there," Powell said.

Sharon also met Monday with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and top aides. A Pentagon spokesman, Bryan Whitman, said Rumsfeld expressed sympathy for the loss of innocent Israeli lives in the recent terrorist attacks. They also discussed the broader war on terrorism, he said.

At the White House meeting, Israeli and U.S. officials say an attempt will be made to define the framework for an international peace conference that Sharon proposed and Powell endorsed last week.

A Sharon adviser said the prime minister would also put forward suggestions on ways to revamp Palestinian security, legal and administrative systems.

Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, also called on Powell, and said his government could not endorse a peace conference.

"It's not a bad idea," Saud said. But he said his government needs to know more about what would transpire at the meeting.