Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon headed for Washington on Sunday to make a case for launching military strikes against the Palestinian Authority unless the Palestinians better heed a fragile 12-day-old truce.
Sharon will give President Bush his list of Palestinian violations of the U.S.-brokered cease-fire and argue that continued Palestinian attacks make it very difficult for Israel to hold to a decision not to retaliate militarily.
The Palestinians also accuse Israel of numerous violations of the cease-fire. Since the two sides agreed to it reluctantly June 13, six Israelis and eight Palestinians have been killed, including two Israeli soldiers killed by a suicide bomber Friday and a Palestinian militant who died Sunday when a public pay phone blew up as he was using it.
U.S. officials said Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will praise Sharon for exercising restraint and urge him to stick with it. Although the officials say Bush and Powell might sympathize with Sharon's complaints of Palestinian truce violations, they will warn him that it would be a mistake to surrender the "moral high ground" that he has gained by resisting pressure to retaliate, especially for the June 1 suicide bombing outside a Tel Aviv disco that killed 21 young Israelis.
"The image Sharon brought into office was a bulldozer, lacking any subtlety," said Richard Murphy, former chief of the State Department's Middle East bureau. "He hasn't acted that way. Does his policy deserve the term 'restraint'? Sure. But there would be a massive international outcry if there was a turning back of the clock."
Powell plans to leave just hours after Sharon's meeting Tuesday at the White House for a trip to Israel, the West Bank, Egypt and Jordan. State Department officials say his purpose is to prevent a breakdown of the cease-fire.
Palestinians Vow Revenge for Killing
The Palestinian killed Sunday, Osama Jawabri, was suspected by Israel of leading shooting ambushes of Jewish settlers in the West Bank. The army refused to comment, but Palestinian officials, saying Jawabri was "assassinated" by Israel, vowed revenge.
Jawabri, 29, was killed as he began to speak on the pay phone, in the central square of Nablus, a West Bank town 30 miles north of Jerusalem. Two children were injured by flying pieces of the phone booth. The method was identical to the killing of an Islamic Jihad militant in April in nearby Jenin, and Israel is known to have targeted and killed a number of Palestinian militants suspected in attacks on Israelis in the last nine months of Israeli-Palestinian warfare.
"With this assassination, Sharon has opened the gates of hell for the Israelis," warned Marwan Barghouti, a militia commander from Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.
Israeli state radio quoted a senior Israeli official as saying that Jawabri was on a list of dozens of terrorist suspects that Israel gave to Arafat two days earlier with the demand that they be arrested within 24 hours. Otherwise, the radio quoted Israel's internal security chief, Avi Dichter, as saying then, Israel would feel free to "exert its right of self-defense."
Also Sunday, Israelis buried two 19-year-old soldiers who were killed Friday when a suicide bomber from the radical Islamic Hamas organization detonated himself and the explosives-laden car he was driving in the northern Gaza Strip. The soldiers died when they approached the vehicle, which appeared to be stuck in sand. Their commander said Sunday that the Hamas militant was attempting to enter Israel to stage a massive terrorist attack in an Israeli city.
Prime Minister to Ask for More U.S. Pressure
In his meetings in Washington, aides said, Sharon will implore the Bush administration to redouble its pressure on Arafat to obey the cease-fire and halt all shootings, bombings and other attacks.
Sharon and his top aides have been laying the groundwork for ending the government's so-called restraint policy. Holding off major military retaliation for the ongoing attacks has won Sharon points in the international arena but has drawn blistering condemnation from the Israeli right wing and from Jewish settlers, who feel most under siege.
"Israel's patience is running out," Israeli President Moshe Katsav said Sunday after Sharon left. "The prime minister's trip to the United States is the last chance to reach a dialogue with the Palestinians."
The Palestinians, meanwhile, are looking to Powell's arrival in the region this week with dim hopes of forcing Israel to begin negotiating political issues, such as a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, before all violence ceases. Bush has thus far supported the Israeli position, but some U.S. officials think Sharon's insistence on a 10-day period of "complete quiet" followed by a six-week "cooling-off period" before any political negotiations can resume may be unrealistic.
Arafat, attempting to curry sympathy from an Israeli public that generally loathes him, held an extraordinary meeting with six Israeli journalists Friday. In their published accounts Sunday, the journalists described an alert leader who said he would arrest known troublemakers and was trying to obey the cease-fire but who generally blamed Israel for all violence.
For Sharon, his second invitation to the White House since his election in February is a small coup. Arafat, in contrast to his frequent visits during the Clinton presidency, has yet to be asked to meet Bush.
"Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is going to the U.S. today to cut out some diplomatic coupons," Israeli commentator Hemi Shalev wrote Sunday in the Maariv daily. "Once a suspect politician, now a potential diplomat. Sharon has been yearning for this all his life, and no one can take it away from him."
Yet Sharon never fully escapes his past. On the eve of his trip, the New York-based Human Rights Watch called for a criminal investigation of Sharon's role in the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in two Lebanese refugee camps 19 years ago.
The slaughter at the Sabra and Shatila camps outside Beirut, which were under the control of an Israeli invasion force at the time, cost Sharon his job as defense minister when an Israeli government investigation that year found him indirectly responsible. A new BBC documentary is being aired this month that reviews the facts of the case and asks whether Sharon could be indicted as a war criminal. And a group of survivors is attempting to sue Sharon in a Belgian court.
The BBC program contains gruesome footage of the mutilated bodies and includes an interview with Morris Draper, then Washington's special envoy to the Middle East, who says he implored Sharon to stop the killings, which were carried out over three days by Lebanese Christian militiamen allied with Israel.
Outrage Sparked by BBC Program
Numerous Israelis, including some who are not particularly sympathetic to Sharon, are voicing outrage at the program, which they claim is tendentious and timed to embarrass the prime minister. One legislator, saying Arafat is the "real war criminal," is attempting to open a legal case against the Palestinian leader. The BBC has declared it is legitimate to examine the record of a new prime minister, especially in view of strides made in the international prosecution of war crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda and elsewhere.
Human Rights Watch noted that not a single individual was ever brought to justice for the Sabra and Shatila atrocities despite "abundant evidence that war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed on a wide scale."
Sharon has argued in the past that he could not have foreseen the massacre, a contention challenged by Draper and others, given the notorious enmity between Palestinians and the Lebanese militia, known as Phalangists.
Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this report.