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U.S. Wants to Help Lay Foundation for Mideast Peace.

By David Gollust (VOA-White House)

President Bush made his first foray into Middle East diplomacy Tuesday - telling Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon his administration will work to facilitate peace-making in the region but will not try to force a solution on the parties. At the same time, Sharon was urged to ease Israel's economic clampdown on the West Bank and Gaza.

Bush administration officials insist they are no less interested in bringing peace to the Middle East than was former President Clinton. But the Sharon visit signaled a change in U.S. emphasis from that of Clinton, who some analysts believe aggravated regional tensions with his drive to broker a final status agreement during his last months in office.

In an Oval Office picture-taking session with the Israeli leader, Bush said he sees the U.S. role as helping create the conditions for peace-making, rather than trying to dictate the terms. "I assured the Prime Minister my administration will work hard to lay the foundation of peace in the Middle East, to work with the nations in the Middle East to give peace a chance. Secondly I told him our nation will not try to force peace, will facilitate peace, and that we will work with those responsible for a peace."

Bush was asked about comments made recently by Secretary of State Colin Powell in which he called Jerusalem the capital of Israel. The president said the future of the city should be determined by the parties. But he recalled that during last year's race for the White House, he said he would begin the process of moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Sharon, a former general and member of Israel's hardline Likud party, won a landslide election last month on a pledge of restoring Israeli security in the face of a six-month-long Palestinian uprising. In his remarks at the photo session, the Israeli leader reiterated his stand that an end to violence is a necessary precondition for resuming a peace dialogue with the Palestinian authority. "The first thing and the most important one is to bring security to the citizens of Israel," said Sharon. "That was the commitment I took upon myself, Mr. President, and that is the first thing that we have to accomplish. Once we reach security and it will be calm in the Middle East, I believe that we'll start with our negotiations to reach a peace agreement."

A senior U.S. official who briefed reporters on the two hours of talks said the president agreed with Sharon that a halt to violence was the "first and foremost" consideration. But he also said the administration looks to the Sharon government to ease the closure of Palestinian areas and act to restore normal economic life there - including the resumption of embargoed tax payments to the Palestinian authority.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher criticized Israeli plans to build nearly 3,000 new homes in the controversial Jewish settlement of Har Homa on the edge of Arab east Jerusalem. He said Bush made it clear he expects both sides to avoid unilateral actions that will further escalate the situation.

In another development at the United Nations Security Council, countries supporting the Palestinian cause are reported to have introduced a resolution calling for a U.N. observer force to help end the six months of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

In violence Tuesday in the West Bank, several Palestinians were shot and wounded by Israeli soldiers near al-Khader. There were other instances of violence south of Nablus, and in the southern Gaza Strip, but no deaths were reported.

The president is to have talks here next month with Jordan's King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But thus far there is no meeting scheduled with Palestinian Authority leader Yasir Arafat, though Bush has spoken with him on the telephone.

The senior official side-stepped a question as to whether the administration has made an Arafat visit contingent on a renunciation of violence by the Palestinian leader. He said the United States is not setting conditions, but that it is "obvious" that Arafat should do all he can to reduce the level of violence.
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Publication:Israel Faxx
Date:Mar 21, 2001
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