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Sharon to Bush: Arafat a Target

Times Staff Writer

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is fighting to shore up support among hard-liners in his Likud Party, said Friday that he had told President Bush during their White House meeting last week that he no longer felt bound by an earlier pledge not to harm Yasser Arafat.

Sharon’s threat against the Palestinian Authority president was by no means new, but his remarks seemed designed to imply that he had the tacit approval of the U.S. administration for any action Israel takes against Arafat. Israel recently assassinated two leaders of Hamas.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Apr. 29, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 29, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Palestinian refugees -- An article Saturday in Section A about an Israeli threat against Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat incorrectly stated that millions of Palestinians fled or were driven out of their homes during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. In fact, that figure refers to the refugees, who numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and their descendants.

By issuing his threat against Arafat, Sharon could also be seeking to curry favor with the most conservative elements of Likud before the party’s May 2 vote on his proposal to withdraw from settlements in the Gaza Strip.

Polls have suggested only a narrow margin of support for Sharon’s initiative among the Likud membership.

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In an interview aired Friday night on Israel’s Channel 2, Sharon said he informed Bush during their April 14 meeting that a commitment he made at the outset of the 43-month-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- that Israel would refrain from physically harming Arafat -- was no longer valid.

Sharon said he told Bush, “I understand the problems, but I am free of this commitment.” He refused to say how the president responded.

Bush administration officials confirmed that the prime minister told the president of the change. But they said the White House continued to oppose the assassination of Arafat.

“Our position hasn’t changed,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said. “President Bush reiterated to Prime Minister Sharon in his meeting with him our opposition to the assassination or exile of Arafat.”

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In the U.S. view, the Israelis’ previous pledge is still in effect, he said.

In the television interview, Sharon did not say whether there was a timetable for moving against Arafat, who has been confined to his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah for more than two years. But asked whether his remarks meant that Israel intended to strike at some point, Sharon replied, “I do not think this matter can be made any clearer.”

Israeli officials from Sharon down have made explicit threats against Arafat for some time. The prime minister said in Israeli interviews earlier this month that he no longer felt obliged to refrain from striking at the Palestinian leader, whom Israel considers directly linked to terrorist activity against Israel. Sharon told one newspaper that Arafat should consider himself a poor insurance risk.

Sharon has a history of telegraphing dramatic moves, such as his Gaza proposal, well in advance. Though he may be posturing for the referendum, Palestinians took the comments seriously and expressed alarm.

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“These are very serious statements, which put the whole region in danger,” Arafat aide Nabil abu Rudaineh said. Sharon “is testing international reaction with these threats,” he added.

For Israelis, the timing of Sharon’s comments is rife with national significance. The excerpts aired on Channel 2 were part of a longer interview to be broadcast Tuesday, Israel’s Independence Day, which falls just five days before the referendum.

If Sharon triumphs in the Likud vote, he would be well-positioned to prevail when he brings the initiative before his Cabinet and the parliament. Many analysts believe a victory would also make it more politically difficult for the prime minister to be indicted on bribery charges he potentially faces.

If the referendum goes against Sharon, however, the entire withdrawal plan will be thrown into question.

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Palestinians were angered and demoralized by the U.S. endorsement last week of Sharon’s “disengagement” plan, which they say bypasses negotiations on a range of key issues, including the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees who fled or were driven out during Israel’s 1948 war of independence. Israel would keep wide swaths of the West Bank, which is densely populated by Jewish settlers.

The endorsement was an about-face for the United States, which had long considered the settlements impediments to peace and insisted that Israel and the Palestinians directly negotiate terms of Palestinian statehood. With talks in effect circumvented, no one is quite sure what will happen next.

The Palestinian Authority prime minister, Ahmed Korei, was said to have told Arafat after Bush approved Sharon’s plan that he wanted to quit his post, but Jamal Shoubaki, a Cabinet minister close to both Korei and Arafat, says Korei has been told that he cannot leave until after the referendum.

Throughout more than 3 1/2 years of conflict, Israel has openly employed a policy of assassinating Palestinians it holds responsible for terrorist attacks, brushing aside international criticism. Before then, such killings were more commonly covert operations for which Israel neither claimed nor denied responsibility.

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The latest and by far the most high-profile targets were Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, who was killed March 22 in an Israeli missile attack. His successor, Abdulaziz Rantisi, was slain in a similar attack April 17.

Fueling U.S. tensions with the Palestinians, it was disclosed Friday that three Palestinian men being held in connection with the deadly bombing of a U.S. diplomatic convoy in the Gaza Strip had escaped this week under circumstances that suggested the complicity of Palestinian authorities.

The men were sprung from a Palestinian police station in Gaza City on Tuesday amid a burst of gunfire in what appeared to be a choreographed jailbreak. No one was reported injured in the incident, which was not disclosed at the time by Palestinian Authority law enforcement officials and was not confirmed by them Friday.

U.S. officials have been highly critical of the Palestinian investigation of the Oct. 15 roadside bombing, which killed three American security workers traveling in the convoy in the northern Gaza Strip.

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The attack, the first in the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict aimed specifically at Americans, raised fears of a wide-ranging campaign against U.S. targets in Israel and the Palestinian territories. However, no similar attacks against American interests have occurred since then.

U.S. officials have threatened to reduce aid to the Palestinians until those responsible are brought to justice -- a warning that a top Palestinian official denounced as blackmail. The U.S. offered a $5-million bounty for help in catching those involved in the bombing, which took place less than half a mile inside Gaza. No one has stepped forward.

Earlier this year, at a hearing in a Palestinian military court -- of which American authorities were given no notice -- four Palestinian men said to be affiliated with a shadowy umbrella group known as the Popular Resistance Committees were charged with manslaughter in connection with the bombing.

In March, a Palestinian judge ordered them released for lack of evidence, but they were still in custody. Palestinian bureaucracy moves very slowly.

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Three of those men were freed in Tuesday’s assault on the police station, said a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees. The fourth refused to leave, saying he would wait for the judge’s decision.

The men had reportedly admitted planting a roadside bomb but claimed it was meant for an Israeli tank. However, investigators described the device as a sophisticated one that was almost certainly activated by remote control.

An American official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the incident at the police station and its handling by Palestinian officials once again pointed to a “lack of seriousness” on the part of Arafat’s government in dealing with the investigation.

At the time of the bombing, some Palestinian security sources suggested that an attack of such magnitude probably could not have been carried out without the knowledge of the Palestinian leader.

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U.S. diplomatic officials, except those involved in the investigation, have been forbidden to travel to Gaza since the bombing. That has hampered a number of American-sponsored programs in the impoverished Mediterranean enclave, said Paul Patin, a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Tel Aviv.

The travel ban on U.S. personnel is unlikely to be lifted in the near future unless there is progress in solving the case, he said.

“We continue to request from the Palestinians further cooperation on this issue,” Patin said.

Also Friday, Israel staged a series of raids in the West Bank that the army described as hunts for wanted Palestinian militants. Undercover troops killed three Palestinian men in an early-morning ambush in the town of Kalkilya, Palestinian witnesses said.

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Later, a shootout erupted in the village of Talouza, outside the West Bank city of Nablus, as the army tried to arrest several men. The army confirmed there had been an exchange of fire as it pursued fugitives, and Palestinian witnesses said a bystander, a university lecturer, was killed as he stood in his garden.

Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.


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