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Bush, Sharon to discuss possible Iraq attack
WASHINGTON -- For once, Middle East peacemaking will not be at the top of the agenda when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon calls on President Bush this week at the White House.
Instead, the two leaders are expected to focus Wednesday on the prospect of U.S. war with Iraq and on the U.S. desire that Israel stay on the sidelines, as it did when Bush's father went to war with Iraq more than a decade ago.
Yitzhak Shamir, then Israel's prime minister, heeded American advice and held his fire, even after Iraq peppered Israel with Scud missiles.
Bush had sent two U.S. emissaries to Israel known for their affinity for that country, his deputy secretary of state, Lawrence Eagleburger, and Paul Wolfowitz, then an undersecretary of defense and now deputy defense secretary. Their missions were to reinforce the message that an Israeli response to Iraqi missiles was bound to irritate Arab countries in the U.S.-led coalition massed to reverse Iraq's annexation of Kuwait.
Sharon has given notice that if Israel were to be attacked by Iraq, he would strike back.
Iraq's current missile arsenal is not considered as potent as the Scuds used against Israel during the Persian Gulf war. And Israel's defenses have been improved with the Arrow anti-missile system, developed with the help of the United States and successfully tested.
It is designed to intercept a Scud at high altitude early in its flight, before it reaches Israeli airspace. A Patriot can knock out a Scud only toward the end of its flight.
Israel has deployed an Arrow battery south of Tel Aviv.
The current threat to Israel is centered on strong U.S. suspicions that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons and might use them against Israel as well as American troops in the event of a U.S. attack.
By all accounts, the United States already has promised to give Israel advance notice before an attack. Last week, a senior Israeli official told The Associated Press in Jerusalem the United States would provide three days' notice.
Bush and Sharon are expected to discuss warning arrangements and also U.S. considerations for hoping Israel would hold its fire.
At this point, Bush can be sure of support from only a handful of Arab nations for a U.S. attack on Iraq, far fewer than the number his father and then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III coaxed into a U.S.-led coalition against Saddam.
That would mean Israeli retaliation might have less of an impact on U.S. war-making.
The Arab public remains as opposed to an attack on Iraq as it was during the Persian Gulf War, however, and Israel is despised by many Arabs as much as the United States is distrusted.
A visit by an Israeli prime minister to the White House usually is an occasion to try to map peacemaking strategy.
But Israeli peacemaking with the Palestinians was already on hold before the Bush administration began talking publicly about war with Iraq.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has tried to keep the Arab-Israeli conflict separate from U.S. policy on Iraq.
He has worked with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and European Union leaders to sketch out a the beginning of a road map to peace.
Sharon is to arrive Tuesday and is likely to meet with Powell and separately with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, before flying home Thursday.
Bush has not exerted pressure on Israel in the interest of pleasing Arab governments.
But he might ask Sharon to ease economic restrictions on Palestinians and step up the evacuation of illegal settlement outposts on the West Bank and in Gaza.
Last week, in talks in Washington, the Palestinian Authority's reform-minded finance minister, Salam Fayad, asked for help recovering taxes on Palestinian workers held by Israel.
That appeal probably also will be made to Sharon during his visit. Israel has handed over about $40 million in three payments over the past few months.
With war clouds gathering, however, the goal of reopening peace talks with the Palestinians takes a distant second place to disarming Iraq, by force if necessary, in Bush administration foreign policy.