President Bush says he understands Israel's need to defend itself, but urges the Israelis to consider the long term consequences of their actions. Mr. Bush made the remarks during talks with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as Israeli forces surrounded the Ramallah headquarters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Israeli troops took up positions around the Arafat compound in the West Bank city hours before the White House talks began.
President Bush responded carefully to questions about the Israeli action. He told reporters that there are people who want to use terror to stop the peace process, an apparent reference to the suicide bombers who have claimed many Israeli lives. "Israel has a right to defend herself," he said. "And at the same time as Israel does so, the Prime Minister is willing to discuss the conditions necessary to achieve what we want, which is a secure region and a hopeful region."
But as he sat with Mr. Bush in the president's office, Ariel Sharon made clear he has no intention of dealing with Yasser Arafat. "Of course, we must have a partner for negotiations," he said. "At the present time, we don't see yet a partner. We hope there will be a partner there with whom we will be able to move forward to achieve a durable peace."
During their talks at the White House, they discussed the need to reform the Palestinian Authority. President Bush, while sidestepping questions about Yasser Arafat's role in the peace process, said he still lacks confidence in the Palestinian leader. He said more reforms are needed before conditions are right for a Middle East peace conference. "And so first things first, and that is what institutions are necessary to give the Palestinian people hope and to give the Israelis confidence the emerging government will be someone with whom they can deal," said President Bush.
This was the sixth Bush-Sharon meeting in fifteen months, and it followed a series of discussions between the president and Arab leaders. Among those who have met with Mr. Bush in recent months are Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah of Jordan and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer says Mr. Bush wanted to hear from all sides before coming up with his own Mideast proposals. "The president has had very productive conversations with the Arab nations," he said. "The president has now had another constructive conversation with Prime Minister Sharon. I think the president wants to do a little thinking, he is going to talk to his advisors, and the president will think about if there is an appropriate time or moment to have any further reflections. And that is where he is."
Mr. Fleischer would not say when an announcement might come or what form it might take. He said only that the president is looking for common ground that might help bring about a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.