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Arafat Helping Foster Terror, Bush Declares

Mideast: Saying he is 'very, very disappointed' in the Palestinian leader, the president all but accuses him of a direct role in arms smuggling.

January 26, 2002|PAUL RICHTER and EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

PORTLAND, Maine — President Bush on Friday all but accused Yasser Arafat of direct involvement in arms smuggling, saying that he was "very, very disappointed" in the Palestinian Authority president.

Arafat "must make a full effort to rout out terror in the Middle East," Bush said. "And ordering up weapons that were intercepted on a boat headed . . . for that part of the world is not part of fighting terror. That's enhancing terror."

Fifty tons of weapons were discovered on a ship intercepted by Israeli commandos in the Red Sea this month. Israel has said that the ship was owned by the Palestinian Authority and that several crew members were officers in the Palestinian naval police force.

Bush's words marked the lowest point in U.S.-Palestinian relations since at least 1993, experts said. U.S. officials have previously cited evidence that the arms shipment was ordered by the Palestinian Authority, which Arafat heads, but they stopped short of accusing Arafat of a role.

In a private session at the White House on Friday, Bush and his national security team discussed options, including closing the Palestinian Authority office in Washington and placing Arafat's personal security force on the State Department's list of terrorist groups, aides said. But they said Bush made no immediate decision on which course to take.

Bush and his aides did agree, however, that there was no purpose in sending retired Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, Bush's emissary to the Mideast, back to the region.

"This is the closest the president has come to saying Arafat is directly implicated, and that's important," said Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland.

Even so, Bush's actions have fallen short of what some inside and outside the administration have been demanding. One official predicted that Washington will take actions to underscore its displeasure but won't cut ties.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said on the PBS program "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" that the "moment of truth" had come for Arafat and expressed his disappointment that the Palestinian leader had not accepted responsibility for the arms shipment.

U.S. officials' unhappiness with Arafat has increased as violence swelled in recent months. But their confidence in Arafat has been gravely damaged by his handling of the arms incident, aides said.

Washington alleges that Arafat lied about his government's role in the operation of the ship Karine-A, intercepted Jan. 3 with rockets, mortars and other weapons on board.

U.S. officials have been trying to pressure Arafat to suppress terrorist activities. Officials say that whatever steps they take against Arafat, they will insist that he take action against Palestinian militants before the United States resumes any role as a mediator between the Palestinians and Israelis.

Edward Walker, a former assistant secretary of State for Near East affairs, noted that the smuggling violates an agreement signed by Palestinian officials. U.S. officials' frustration with Arafat is now "enormous," he said.

Nonetheless, Walker said he believes that breaking off ties would be a mistake because it would allow opponents of the peace effort to achieve three important goals: It would remove Arafat from a key role, would end U.S. mediation and would foreclose hope for an agreement.

In Ramallah, the West Bank city where Israeli soldiers have Arafat under virtual house arrest, a senior Arafat advisor said severing ties would "cause an earthquake."

The advisor, Nabil abu Rudaineh, said Bush should act instead against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "and not receive him in the White House."

For their part, Israeli government officials expressed satisfaction Friday with the Bush administration's expressions of understanding for Israel's increased pressure on Arafat. Israel has confined Arafat to Ramallah for nearly two months and has said it will keep him there until he arrests the killers of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, who was gunned down in an East Jerusalem hotel in October. It is stepping up raids into Palestinian-controlled territories, incursions into Palestinian cities and the destruction of Arafat's symbols of power.

The Israeli government confirmed Friday that Sharon has been invited to visit Bush at the White House on Feb. 7 to coordinate U.S. and Israeli policy toward the Palestinian Authority.

*

Times staff writer Mary Curtius in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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