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THE MIDDLE EAST

Bush Demands Israel Pull Out; Sharon to 'Expedite' Offensive

Mideast: Despite the pledge to wrap up the incursion, fighting intensifies in the West Bank, killing 27 people.

April 07, 2002|EDWIN CHEN and PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

CRAWFORD, Texas — President Bush, showing his exasperation as Israeli tanks continued to roll through the West Bank, demanded Saturday that Israel withdraw "without delay" from the Palestinian cities it has occupied in several days of outright war.

"I don't expect them to ignore [me]," he said. "I expect them to heed the call."

After aiming those sharp words at the Israelis during a news conference here, Bush followed up with a 20-minute phone call to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "He told the prime minister that he meant what he said: that Israel needs to withdraw without delay," an administration official said.

Sharon promised that he would wrap up his military incursion into Palestinian cities "as expeditiously as possible," the official said, but there was no immediate sign of a rollback.

In fact, the fighting in the West Bank intensified Saturday as Palestinian gunmen in Nablus and in a seething refugee camp in Jenin put up the fiercest resistance yet to an offensive that Israel says it launched to halt a wave of suicide bombings. At least 26 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier died in the battles.

Thus, on the eve of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's urgent peace mission to the region, the president found himself grappling with Sharon's seeming defiance, a posture that threatened to undermine what is already a profoundly difficult task for the Bush administration.

If it continues, the fighting could jeopardize the administration's new peace initiative and strain the U.S.-Israeli alliance, analysts said. Yet Sharon would be damaged politically if he were seen as following U.S. orders to withdraw.

"Today's situation runs the risk of aggravating long-term bitterness and undermining relationships that are critical to any hope of peace," a State Department official said.

Bush injected himself directly into the crisis for the first time Thursday, calling on Israel to pull back its troops but without attaching a deadline. On Saturday, the president used stronger language, summarizing his position at one point with just three words: "Withdraw without delay."

Despite Bush's seemingly unambiguous demand, he didn't identify a precise time or date for Israel to begin withdrawing. Analysts said the absence of any publicly declared deadline could give Sharon enough wiggle room to save face at home while appearing to be cooperative with the White House. Still, an administration official quoted by Associated Press described the two men's conversation as "pretty brutal."

The president made his public remarks during an appearance with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is visiting Bush at his ranch in Crawford.

The president's manner and tone clearly suggested a growing impatience with the continuing turmoil in the region despite the emerging U.S. intervention. He sought to strike a balance in his latest remarks, demanding anew that Palestinian authorities "order an immediate and effective cease-fire and crack down on terrorist networks" and declaring that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat "has failed in his leadership."

But as protests against Israel's military actions spread across the Arab world and Powell prepared to leave for the Middle East, Sharon's inaction was the immediate problem, as Bush's phone call suggested.

Israel Needs to 'Make Progress Now'

Bush told Sharon that a withdrawal of Israeli troops could improve Powell's chances of defusing the crisis in the region, an administration official said here on condition of anonymity.

"He told the prime minister that Israel needed to make progress now and that Israel needed to defuse the situation so that diplomacy can work," the official said. "The president called him as a friend to express his deep concern about events in the region and to express support as someone who cares about the future of the region."

Bush has put the administration's prestige on the line, said Gordon Adams, director of the security policy studies program at George Washington University. If Israel continues to defy the U.S. call for a withdrawal, "he's got a problem. . . . It could blow [the Powell trip] up."

Powell's mission is aimed partly at enlisting Arab countries to pressure Arafat to help end the terrorist bombings that provoked Israel's declaration of war. But if Israel's anti-terrorist offensive continues, it will be all but impossible for Arab leaders to pressure Arafat.

Widespread Arab anger has already made it difficult for Arab leaders to cooperate publicly. And for the Bush administration, which has the broader goal of lining up Arab support for a global war on terrorism and possible strike against Iraq, the stakes go well beyond the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Analysts noted that Sharon is under sharply conflicting pressures.

The operation in the West Bank is popular at home with an Israeli public that has grown increasingly eager for action against the Palestinians as the suicide bombings have left them shaken.

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