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Profile: Ariel Sharon To Meet With President Bush Today

Morning Edition: October 16, 2002

Bush and Sharon Meet, Discuss Israeli Actions

BOB EDWARDS, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Bob Edwards.

President Bush meets Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the White House today for talks likely to focus on a possible war in Iraq. The US hopes Israel will stay out of such a war. The White House wants to avoid any flare-up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that could hurt US efforts to find Arab support for action against Iraq. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

The Bush administration has already made clear to Sharon that it would like Israel to refrain from actions that could inflame the Arab world at a time when dealing with Iraq remains high on the US agenda. The US ambassador to Israel recently sent a letter to Sharon calling for restraint in the West Bank and Gaza, and White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says the president has made similar pleas publicly.

Mr. ARI FLEISCHER (White House Spokesman): The president has repeatedly said all parties have responsibility and the protection of civilians is an important priority and an important issue. The president has a lot of humanitarian thought and feel toward the legitimate needs of the Palestinian people, and he wants to continue to impress that message on Israel. It's important for Israel to hear that message.

KELEMEN: That message has not always been very strong, though, according to Warren Bass, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, who's writing a book about the US-Israel alliance.

Mr. WARREN BASS (Council on Foreign Relations): The Bush administration has made a few tougher recent noises deploring civilian casualties in some recent Israeli raids, including a quite large one into the Gaza Strip. Clearly what's behind at least some of that is an American concern that a flare of violence on the Israeli-Palestinian front could make things much tougher on Iraq.

KELEMEN: Tougher, that is, to win Arab support for any action against Iraq.

Prime Minister Sharon is expected to address some of the US concerns about Israeli military action in the West Bank and Gaza when he meets President Bush later today. Israel's ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, insists his country is fighting Palestinian terrorism, not civilians. In an interview, he also repeated his country's complaints about Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Ambassador DANIEL AYALON (Israel): The same way that we seek regime change in Iraq because it's a brutal, totalitarian and terroristic regime, the same way we need a regime change within the Palestinians, a new leadership which will be committed to peace, and this is the key for any further progress.

KELEMEN: But US officials say recent Israeli actions have not been helpful. One State Department official said there had been some progress in Palestinian reforms, progress that slowed when Israeli forces recently occupied Arafat's government compound in Ramallah.

As for Iraq, the official said the United States is seeking ways to take out Saddam Hussein's capability of striking Israel right from the beginning so that the question of Israeli retaliation becomes a moot point. Analyst Warren Bass says some Israelis have argued that it was a mistake not to retaliate against Iraqi missile strikes during the Persian Gulf War, that such restraint damaged Israel's deterrence.

Mr. BASS: The Americans will argue that, in fact, Israeli restraint in 1991 worked like a charm. Saddam got taken down to size and the Israelis didn't have to lift a finger. Worse, if the Israelis had got into it in '91, as in 2002, it would let Saddam try to portray this as a wider Arab-Israeli struggle rather than a problem that the world has with a reckless Iraqi regime.

KELEMEN: Israel's ambassador to the United States says his country supports US efforts to disarm Iraq, and he says his prime minister and President Bush will be talking about contingency planning should there be any military action and should Iraq once again fire missiles toward Israel. Ambassador Ayalon adds in that case, Israel reserves the right to defend itself. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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