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Sharon Stands Firm Ahead of U.S. Visit

Mideast: Israeli leader repeats demand for a violence-free period. A suicide bombing adds to the bloodshed.


JERUSALEM — Hours before departing on an official visit to the United States, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared Thursday that his demand for seven violence-free days before Israel will agree to a truce with the Palestinians is nonnegotiable.

The bloodshed continued throughout the day. A man killed himself and three other people when he exploded a bomb on a bus near the northern Israeli town of Hadera. The bus was ripped apart by the force of the blast, which also injured seven people, Israel Television reported.

The attack came just four hours after an Israeli soldier was killed and another was injured in a drive-by shooting near the Palestinian village of Baqa al Sharqiya in the West Bank. Earlier in the day, Israeli soldiers shot and killed two Palestinian men at a West Bank checkpoint.

Sharon held security consultations after the blast but decided to leave for the U.S. as planned. He is expected to press home to President Bush, when they meet Monday at the White House, that Israel views Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat as an untrustworthy peace partner.

The surge in violence and Sharon's reiteration of a major condition for a cease-fire came just days after the Bush administration launched a new effort to secure a truce and end 14 months of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.

Sharon restated existing policies in a tough speech to Israeli newspaper editors in Tel Aviv. The significance of what he said came in its timing, just before he left for his first trip to the United States since the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The prime minister appeared to be signaling the U.S. administration that its priorities may have changed since then, but that Israel's have not.

U.S. diplomats have privately said seven days of "absolute quiet" is an unreasonable demand that leaves prospects for a cease-fire and a return to peace talks hostage to radicals on both sides. U.S. envoy Anthony C. Zinni, a retired Marine Corps general, arrived here Monday to negotiate a truce. Before his arrival, Western diplomats said Zinni probably would try to persuade Sharon to shorten the period of quiet.

Palestinian officials and some Israeli analysts have accused Sharon of trying to torpedo Zinni's mission by insisting on the seven days. The prime minister answered those critics in his speech, saying the fighting is at least partly due to what he called Israel's failure to hold the Palestinians to past agreements.

The Bush administration, Sharon said, agreed during his last visit to Washington that there would be a period of "absolute quiet," followed by six weeks of "cooling off" before Israelis and Palestinians take steps to return to peace negotiations.

"Israel's insistence on the seven days will not change," Sharon said. "This has been agreed upon with the United States, and from now on, I will insist that every agreement be fully implemented and kept."

In fact, Sharon and Bush publicly disagreed at their last meeting, on June 26, in their assessment of Palestinian actions and how quickly Israel should move to implement the Mitchell commission report. The report, put together earlier this year by an international committee headed by former Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), outlined a series of steps intended to renew peace negotiations.

At a joint news appearance in June, Bush said the Palestinians had made progress in quelling attacks on Israelis, while Sharon said there had been none. Bush spoke in favor of beginning the steps outlined in the Mitchell report, while Sharon insisted that Israel would not negotiate under fire.

Though there may be tension again this time over Sharon's demand for quiet, the administration has shown more understanding for the prime minister's uncompromising stand against terror since the Sept. 11 attacks--and less patience with Arafat. In a speech on the Middle East last week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made no mention of the seven-day period. Palestinians had hoped he would call for it to be abandoned.

Possible U.S. Strike on Iraq Will Be Topic

Speaking in Washington on Thursday, Powell said he does expect a timetable for peacemaking to come of Zinni's efforts.

One of Sharon's highest priorities on this U.S. visit, however, is not peacemaking but exploring the possibility of an American attack on Iraq in the next phase of the administration's war on terror.

Deeply worried about the Iraqi regime's pursuit of unconventional weapons, Israel would welcome a U.S. strike on Iraqi facilities or an effort to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But Israel is unwilling this time to show the restraint that it demonstrated in 1991. At that time, then-President George Bush, who wanted to keep Arab allies in his coalition against Hussein's regime, prevailed upon Israeli leaders not to retaliate for Iraqi missile attacks on Israeli cities.

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