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Israel Steps Up Bid to Sideline Arafat

Mideast: Sharon and Bush will meet Monday, as U.S. tries to craft plans for a peace conference.


JERUSALEM — The Israeli attack on Yasser Arafat's West Bank headquarters Thursday delivered a message not only to the Palestinian leader but also to President Bush: This Israeli government will not bend in its refusal to have anything to do with Arafat.

With the rubble of Arafat's offices still smoking, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon prepared to head to Washington for a Monday meeting with Bush. The Israeli leader intends to make the case that convening an international peace conference on the Middle East is impossible unless Arafat is at least sidelined, if not expelled from Palestinian territory.

"The prime minister's message will be that Yasser Arafat must be removed from power because he is an obstacle to reform," Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin said. "If there is a wish to move ahead with a political process, a solution to Arafat must be found."

Gissin insisted, however, that the government was not contemplating Arafat's expulsion.

Sharon requested the meeting with Bush as reports circulated here that the U.S. administration might put forth a plan calling for a Palestinian state to be established in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and parts of East Jerusalem within three years. The State Department reportedly is arguing that the plan should be the basis for a peace conference, which the administration hopes to convene next month.

Arab leaders have told Bush that they and the Palestinians will attend a conference only if the agenda includes a vision for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a timetable for achieving it.

However, any talk of an Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders or a timetable for establishing a Palestinian state is anathema to Sharon, a hawk who has vowed to preserve every Jewish settlement and retain large areas of the West Bank as security buffers for Israel.

The Sharon government's signal that it would not deal with Arafat did not seem to immediately have the desired effect in Washington.

One day after the White House questioned Arafat's trustworthiness, U.S. officials insisted that they consider him the top Palestinian leader and intend to continue to treat him as such.

"Chairman Arafat is the leader of the Palestinian people," Richard Boucher, the chief State Department spokesman, said Thursday.

Sean McCormack, a White House spokesman, said exiling Arafat would not solve anything. "The issue is building Palestinian institutions and ... bringing the Palestinian people into the building of these institutions," he said.

At the same time, U.S. leaders continued to try to prod Arafat to do more to end terrorist attacks and bring peace.

"I think the Palestinian people expect Mr. Arafat to do more for them, to perform," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in an interview with PBS. "They have now been in the intifada for a year and a half, and it hasn't brought them anything except grief."

Sharon has said that he is willing to negotiate only a "long-term interim agreement" with the Palestinians. Such an arrangement would give Palestinians control over many areas of their daily lives in about 42% of the West Bank and much of Gaza, but it would leave decisions about borders, sovereignty, the status of Palestinian refugees and disputed Jerusalem unresolved for years.

The resurgence of Palestinian suicide attacks on Israelis since Sharon ended a large-scale military sweep through the West Bank last month has only strengthened the prime minister's conviction that diplomatic progress must be gradual, said Dore Gold, a foreign policy advisor to Sharon.

"Clearly, there has been a lot of talk about reform [in the Palestinian Authority], but what we're seeing is more of the same when it comes to how their security services are performing," Gold said. "That really means we have not seen any change on the part of Yasser Arafat in regards to stopping attacks on Israel."

Sharon and his aides have watched with consternation Bush's consultations with Arab leaders on a framework for a conference. They are pleased that the prime minister will have the final word before the president decides on the U.S. position.

"It is only proper and right that he hear firsthand from one of the major actors: Israel," Gissin said. "It is not right that the one actor most affected is not being consulted."

But it is hard to see how the two leaders will be able to bridge the chasm between Sharon's notions of the basis for a peace conference and those of Arab leaders, analysts here said.

"What sort of conference this will be and whether it can conceivably be successful, given the gap between the parties and the lack of concerted energy by the administration so far, I don't know," said Joseph Alpher, an independent Israeli analyst. "It will be quite a feat of constructive ambiguity if the president succeeds in getting both the Arabs and the Israelis there."

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