WASHINGTON — President Bush resisted pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Thursday to sever diplomatic relations with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, but Sharon did not budge from his view that Arafat has become one of the "obstacles to peace."
Continuing differences over Arafat became clear immediately after an hourlong meeting between Bush and Sharon. Bush renewed his call on Arafat to crack down on Palestinian terrorism and made it clear that the United States will remain engaged with the Palestinian Authority and with Arafat himself, at least for now.
"I assured the prime minister that we will continue to keep pressure on Mr. Arafat to convince him that he must take serious, concrete, real steps to reduce terrorist activity in the Middle East," Bush said.
"I can't be any more clear in my position, and that is that he must do everything in his power to fight terror," Bush told reporters during a brief Oval Office session Thursday evening, as Sharon sat beside him.
Sharon reiterated his view that Arafat had become "irrelevant" to the peace process.
"Arafat has chosen a strategy of terror and formed a coalition of terror," Sharon said. "Therefore, we believe that pressure should be put on Arafat. . . . I hope to have an alternative leadership in the future."
As violence has continued in the region, Bush administration officials have struggled to find a way to get Arafat to do more to curb terrorist attacks on Israelis. But, while rebuking Arafat publicly and bluntly, they have been reluctant to seek a solution without him.
The administration's frustration has grown in the past two weeks, as the Israelis have provided evidence that the Palestinian Authority was involved in an attempt to smuggle in 50 tons of Iranian arms by ship, a move that Bush has described as "enhancing terror."
Sharon said Thursday night, "One cannot get into compromise with terror."
U.S. officials say they believe that if Arafat did not know about the Palestinian Authority's involvement in the shipment, he should have.
In their joint White House appearance, both Bush and Sharon also acknowledged the plight of the Palestinians. Bush mentioned the $300 million in his new budget for nongovernmental organizations in the region to help Palestinians.
"We had an interesting discussion about how we can help the Palestinians--those who aren't involved with terror," the president said, adding, "I'm deeply concerned about the plight of the average Palestinian, the moms and dads who are trying to raise their children, to educate their children."
Sharon said he and Bush had discussed "steps that should be taken in order to improve the life conditions of those Palestinians that are not involved in terror. That's my intention--that was always my intention."
Bush and Sharon also reiterated their belief that one day there will be a Palestinian state.
The president's determination not to sever ties with Arafat did not come as a surprise to Sharon.
Earlier in the day, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said that "the president believes Chairman Arafat knows what he needs to do, and that's to fight terror. And the president is still waiting for Chairman Arafat to take stronger actions to do it."
Fleischer also told reporters that Bush would make it clear to Sharon that "the United States will remain engaged in the region and engaged with the Palestinian Authority."
U.S. officials have acknowledged that they are not optimistic that Arafat will move the region toward peace in the current environment of violence. Even so, some officials continue to argue that getting Arafat to cooperate is the best chance they have.
There was continued violence Thursday. Israel struck a Palestinian government complex in the West Bank with missiles twice in retaliation for an Islamic militant's assault on a Jewish settlement that killed three Israelis.
Sharon also used his U.S. visit to stress to Bush Israel's concerns about Iran.
Israeli officials have charged that Iran has provided missiles to Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim militia in Lebanon, and has sent fighters to Lebanon to encourage anti-Israeli activity.
Israeli officials also said before Sharon's meeting with Bush that he would ask Bush to exert pressure on Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to cut off support for Iran's nuclear program, which Israel fears may provide Iran with the materials and technology to produce nuclear weapons.
Bush did not provide details of any such talks.
Sharon, who has imposed virtual house arrest on Arafat in the West Bank, has visited the White House on three previous occasions. Arafat has received no such invitation.