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Analysis: President Bush Meets With Israeli Prime Minister Sraron as Administration Considers Attack on Iraq

All Things Considered: October 16, 2002

Bush Meets With Sharon



JOHN YDSTIE, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm John Ydstie.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

And I'm Jacki Lyden.

A looming war in Iraq was high on the agenda when President Bush met today with Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon. During the Persian Gulf War, Israel endured Iraqi missile strikes, but did not retaliate. Whether Israel would retaliate this time around is cause for concern in Washington as it tries to build its case against Iraq and win support in the Arab world. The Bush administration also wants to see an easing of tensions on the Israeli-Palestinian front, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

President Bush has been careful not to portray his meeting with Sharon as a signal that the US is inching closer toward war with Iraq. He says he told Prime Minister Sharon that he still hopes Saddam Hussein can be disarmed peacefully. Nevertheless, his administration has been talking about ways to keep Israel on the sidelines of any conflict with Iraq and ways to avoid a flare-up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President Bush used the meeting to press Sharon to ease the humanitarian plight of Palestinians.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I appreciate so very much the fact that the prime minister is committed to working with his Cabinet to move some of the Palestinian money to the Palestinian people, that he cares about the human condition of the Palestinians.

KELEMEN: President Bush said he's sending assistant Secretary of State William Burns back to the Middle East to work on reviving the peace process and achieving what he calls `measurable reform of the Palestinian Authority.' US officials have complained that progress on Palestinian reforms was complicated when Israeli troops laid siege to Yasser Arafat's compound last month. Prime Minister Sharon says his priority is still fighting terrorism, though he assured President Bush the day will come for peace talks to resume.

Prime Minister ARIEL SHARON (Israel): We will continue to defend our citizens. In the same time, we'll take all the necessary steps to move forward the political process, and I believe that the day will come when we will have peace.

KELEMEN: As for Iraq, US officials have said that President Bush was making a case to Sharon that the US would take out Iraqi Scud missiles early in any operation to avoid the whole question of Israeli retaliation. In the Persian Gulf War, Iraqi forces fired 39 Scud missiles at Israeli cities, but David Makovsky of The Washington Institute says there is some reason for Israelis to be more confident now because of technology advances in its missile defense system.

Mr. DAVID MAKOVSKY (The Washington Institute): The jointly developed US-Israel aeromissile program(ph) that deals with defense is much more advanced wasn't ready 10 years ago. Israel also has its own independent reconnaissance satellite capability, which it didn't have then. And Saddam, according to British intelligence and other sources, is believed to have much fewer Scud launchers than he did last time around.

KELEMEN: On the other hand, Makovsky says the US goal of regime change in Iraq may make it more likely that Saddam Hussein will attack Israel.

Mr. MAKOVSKY: There is a sense that if Saddam is going down, he may be motivated in a way he wasn't before to hit believing he's now playing for the history books.

KELEMEN: And if that's the case, Isreal's Ariel Sharon will want room to respond. Neither President Bush nor Prime Minister Sharon would speculate on this point at the White House today. The talks were viewed as just the start of complicated contingency planning should diplomatic efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein fail. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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