WASHINGTON -- President Bush on Thursday resisted pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to sever diplomatic relations with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, but Sharon did not budge from his view that Arafat has become one of the "obstacles to peace."
Continuing differences over Arafat became clear immediately after an hourlong meeting between Bush and Sharon. Bush renewed his call on Arafat to crack down on Palestinian terrorism and made clear that the United States will remain engaged with the authority and with Arafat himself, at least for now.
"I assured the prime minister that we will continue to keep pressure on Mr. Arafat to convince him that he must take serious, concrete, real steps to reduce terrorist activity in the Middle East," Bush said.
"I can't be any more clear in my position, and that is that he must do everything in his power to fight terror," Bush told reporters during a brief Oval Office session Thursday evening, as Sharon sat beside him.
Sharon reiterated his view that Arafat had become "irrelevant" to the peace process.
"Arafat has chosen a strategy of terror and formed a coalition of terror," Sharon said. "Therefore, we believe that pressure should be put on Arafat. ... I hope to have an alternative leadership in the future."
As violence has continued in the region, Bush administration officials have struggled to find a way to get Arafat to do more to curb terrorist attacks on Israelis. But, while rebuking Arafat publicly and bluntly, they have been reluctant to seek a solution without him.
The administration's frustration has grown in the past two weeks, as Israelis have provided evidence that the Palestinian Authority was involved in a scheme to smuggle in 50 tons of Iranian arms by ship, a move that Bush has described as "enhancing terror."
Sharon said Thursday night: "One cannot get into compromise with terror."
U.S. officials say they believe that if Arafat did not know about the Palestinian Authority's involvement in the shipment, he should have.
In their joint White House appearance, both Bush and Sharon acknowledged the plight of Palestinians. Bush specifically mentioned the $300 million in his new budget for nongovernmental organizations in the region to help Palestinians.
"We had an interesting discussion about how we can help the Palestinians -- those who aren't involved with terror," the president said, adding, "I'm deeply concerned about the plight of the average Palestinian, the moms and dads who are trying to raise their children, to educate their children."
Sharon said that he and Bush had discussed "steps that should be taken in order to improve the life conditions of those Palestinians that are not involved in terror. That's my intention, that was always my intention."
Bush and Sharon also reiterated their belief that one day there will be a Palestinian state.
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