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Bush cautions Sharon about harming Arafat
Updated: 2004-04-24 08:53

President Bush has cautioned Prime Minister Ariel Sharon against harming Yasser Arafat, a White House official said Friday after the Israeli leader said he was no longer bound by a promise to spare Arafat from attack.

Sharon said he raised the issue with Bush when they met at the White House on April 14.

The prime minister's comments Friday were the strongest sign yet that Israel could target the Palestinian leader, and they threatened to add to growing Arab anger at the United States. Palestinian officials condemned what they called Sharon's "dangerous statements."

The White House hours later said that Bush in last week's meeting had "reiterated his opposition to such an action" against the Palestinian leader.

"We have made it entirely clear to the Israeli government," said National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack. "The president was pretty clear."

Although Sharon said he had a free hand, the White House did not see it that way.

The administration considers Sharon's earlier pledge to be binding, one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. That official said Sharon did not tell Bush what, if anything, Israel planned to do against Arafat.

Bush and Sharon did not mention the subject when they briefed the press on their talks last week. Instead, Bush endorsed Sharon's plan to hold on to part of the West Bank in any final peace settlement with the Palestinians. The president also ruled out Palestinian refugees returning to Israel.

Bush's words at that time brought strong criticism from the Palestinians.

Sharon talked about his conversation with Bush in an interview with Israel TV's Channel Two, broadcast Friday. Early this month Sharon made similar comments in an interview with Israeli Army Radio. His message then said the Palestinian leader and the head of Lebanon's Hezbollah were potential targets for assassination.

"I told the president the following," Sharon said. "In our first meeting about three years ago, I accepted your request not to harm Arafat physically. I told him I understand the problems surrounding the situation, but I am released from that pledge."

Sharon declined to elaborate and would not say how Bush responded.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that "nothing has changed in the U.S. position."

Sharon has accused Arafat of supporting Palestinian militants who have killed more than 900 Israelis during 3 1/2 years of fighting.

Israel has killed many militants, too, including the leaders of the Islamic group Hamas, in targeted attacks. However, under U.S. pressure, it has refrained from killing or expelling Arafat, confining him instead to his West Bank headquarters for two years.

Palestinian officials have expressed concern that Israel might attack Arafat, especially after the killings of Hamas leaders in recent months. On Thursday, Arafat expelled 20 militants who had sought shelter at his West Bank headquarters, apparently fearing an Israeli attack was imminent.

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an aide to Arafat, warned that Sharon's "dangerous statements ... could push the whole region into tremendous danger."

In recent months, Israel has repeatedly threatened Arafat, but has taken no action. In September, Israel's Cabinet decided Arafat should be "removed" an intentionally vague statement.

In a related development, Palestinian officials said they had spoken to Secretary of State Colin Powell about Sharon's plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip, which Bush endorsed last week.

Sharon has proposed unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza and four West Bank settlements. He says the moves are necessary to boost Israeli security.

The Palestinians fear Sharon will use the plan to hold on to large chunks of the West Bank. The Palestinians want to establish an independent state in all of Gaza and the West Bank.

Earlier this week, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia sent a letter to Bush asking him to reconsider his support for the plan and his tacit recognition of some Israeli settlements.

Powell called Qureia on Friday, saying the administration would study his letter and answer soon, aides to the prime minister said.

Palestinian officials said it appears the United States is waiting for the outcome of an Israeli referendum on the withdrawal plan, set for May 2.

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