WASHINGTON -- President Bush is willing to give Yasser Arafat at least one more chance, but Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister and Bush's partner in countering terrorism, isn't so sure.
Sharon used the platform of the White House this week to suggest it's time to look for alternatives to Arafat as the leader of the Palestinians. He sugar-coated the statement with a promise of statehood and a better life for the Palestinian people.
After his Oval Office meeting with Bush, the prime minister told reporters that isolating Arafat diplomatically would encourage the emergence of more practical Palestinian leadership.
"The more Arafat's irrelevance is pushed, the faster a new leadership will come," Sharon said.
Two weeks ago, at a White House meeting, Bush and his advisers considered suspending U.S. contact with Arafat over continuing terror attacks on Israel. Vice President Dick Cheney and Pentagon officials backed the approach.
But Secretary of State Colin Powell advised, instead, that the president keep pressuring Arafat to curb the attacks, to make more arrests, to dismantle terrorist cells on the West Bank and in Gaza and to accept responsibility for a Palestinian attempt to smuggle in 50 tons of Iranian rockets, mortar and explosives.
That's the course Bush chose, and at a joint news conference with Sharon Thursday he said firmly: "Mr. Arafat has heard my message -- I can't be any more clear about it -- that he must do everything in his power to reduce terrorist attacks on Israel."
Basically, that has been Bush's message for months, conveyed more bluntly after Israeli commandos uncovered and aborted the smuggling operation.
The president has given no indication what steps he might take if he continues to find Arafat's response inadequate.
Sharon, a bitter foe of the Palestinian leader for two decades, is bearing the frustration of a rash of terror attacks on Israeli civilians.
How much support there is in the administration for his call for isolating Arafat is not clear.
Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who also was in Washington for talks, said Cheney and Condoleezza Rice, the president's assistant for national security, had told him there was no point in talking to Arafat.
Administration spokesmen denied it, and Ben-Eliezer said on Friday he had been misquoted and was sorry.
But whoever said or didn't say what, there was no doubt the Israelis were seeking a much harder line against Arafat and questions remained after Sharon left the capital.
Among them: Is there is an alternative to Arafat and is that a goal worth pursuing?
Robert Pelletreau, a former assistant secretary of state for the Near East and ex-U.S. ambassador to Egypt, said it was unrealistic to think of Arafat's deputies as alternatives.
"They are loyal to Arafat, and President Bush is not persuaded that cutting off relations with Arafat wouldn't make things worse," Pelletreau said in an interview.
Bush is trying to arrange for the United States, Israel and Egypt all to assist the Palestinian Authority with the aim of resuming U.S. mediation, the retired American diplomat said. "All the other alternatives are worse."
Richard Murphy, a former assistant secretary of state for the Near East and ex-U.S. ambassador to Syria, said: "I don't think we should be cutting off ties. We stand all too readily accused throughout the region of simply being too nice to Israel. And if we cut off ties with Arafat, I don't think anyone is going to come forward and say, 'Deal with me."'
Bush wants to keep a line open, Murphy, now with the private Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview. "I think it is absolutely right, but I don't think he should have any illusions" that Arafat's deputies want to overthrow him.
Judith Kipper, of the Council on Foreign Relations, said flatly: "There is no alternative leadership."
Besides, she said in an interview, Sharon is talking to Arafat through Sharon's son, Omri. "There is more going on than meets the eye, and Sharon is now talking about Palestinian statehood," Kipper said in an interview.
Edward S. Walker, also a former assistant secretary of state and ex-U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, said he did not see how the United States could cut Arafat off.
"Not if we care about Israel and the Israelis," Walker, who heads the private Middle East Institute, said in an interview. "We have to maintain contact. That's the only way we can get terrorism under control."
Moreover, Walker said, it is irrelevant to consider an alternative to Arafat so long as the Palestinians support him. "It is up to the Palestinians to choose their leader. So that leaves us with no option but to deal with him."
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