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Bush Discusses Mideast with Congressional Leaders - 2002-04-11

President Bush has discussed continuing violence in the Middle East with Congressional leaders. The Bush administration believes Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is committed to peace, despite his refusal to withdraw all troops from Palestinian areas.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer again called for all sides in the crisis to "step up to their responsibilities" and end the violence.

Mr. Fleischer said for Israel that means complying with President Bush's request last week to withdraw its troops from Palestinian areas. Prime Minister Sharon has rejected that demand, saying the United States needs to understand that Israel is in a "war of survival."

Mr. Fleischer has not said whether President Bush is disappointed by that response. Some Israeli troops are withdrawing from some areas, and Mr. Fleischer says the president believes Mr. Sharon is a man who is committed to finding peace.

As for the Palestinians, the White House spokesman said President Bush is waiting for Yasser Arafat to make public statements denouncing suicide bombings and rejecting violence as a political instrument.

Mr. Fleischer said Israel's Arab neighbors must also do more to stop the violence and reign-in anti-Israeli protestors.

Following breakfast with the president, Senate Minority Leader Republican Trent Lott said Mr. Arafat has what he called "one final opportunity" to reduce the violence or risk becoming irrelevant.

"The president has to call on the more moderate Arab nations to be involved to try and provide leadership, because Arafat is clearly not doing it," Mr. Lott said.

House Minority Leader Democrat Dick Gephardt said the United States remains a strong supporter of Israel. But he said the United States must also work to bring all parties to a negotiated settlement to end suicide bombings and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian areas.

"It is a very important time to keep our effort together. Americans support Israel, realize Israel is involved in a fight against terrorism and we will always be there for Israel, but we also have to be a force for peace," Mr. Gephardt said.

The Congressional leaders expressed support for Secretary of State Colin Powell's ongoing peace mission. Mr. Fleischer sought to lower expectations for that mission, saying Secretary Powell hopes to bring the two sides closer together, but may not necessarily end-up with a cease-fire.