WASHINGTON -- Its peace hopes dimmed, the Bush administration is questioning Yasser Arafat's grip on Palestinian militants and waiting anxiously for Israel's response to a rash of suicide bombings.
President Bush on Sunday denounced the weekend attacks as "horrific acts of murder" and conferred with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for about an hour at the White House. Sharon then flew home for a Cabinet meeting Monday.
Sharon told Bush that Israel would respond to terror as best it could, a senior Israeli official said.
There was no indication Bush had sought to persuade the Israeli leader to hold back. Arafat "must do everything in his power to find those who murdered innocent Israelis and bring them to justice," the president said.
White House officials said Bush expects Arafat to break up Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, groups that the United States believes trains and supports suicide attackers.
"You've got to go after the organizations who are conducting these kinds of acts of terror," Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation." He said that means "putting them in real jails where they are not walking free several days later." The rhetoric, a dramatic shift in tone, was meant to intensify pressure on Arafat, White House officials said.
With 25 people killed and nearly 200 wounded by three suicide bombers, Arafat ordered dozens of Islamic militants arrested and promised harsh action. But Israel was deeply skeptical, with hard-liners calling for removal of the Palestinian leader.
George Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader whose commission outlined recommendations for peacemaking that would follow a cease-fire, said Monday it is unlikely that the process would be better without Arafat. "I think there would be internal conflict and the successor could most likely be out of the factions that are creating the problems," he said on CBS' "The Early Show."
Mitchell said the latest violence could be the trigger for serious steps toward peace because "things are getting so bad that both sides will recognize that life is unbearable. ... I believe they will turn a corner because things are so bad and they can't continue with this conflict. Peace is the only alternative."
What was to have been a White House pep talk to Sharon to get started on tentative peace moves was transformed suddenly into an hourlong emergency session that shifted the burden to Arafat to prove he can end Palestinian attacks.
The meeting was moved up a day to accommodate Sharon, who flew home a few hours later to conduct the Cabinet session.
Much of what Bush and other U.S. officials said was familiar. But the tone was unusually tough. "There can be no excuse for failure to take immediate and thorough action against the perpetrators of these vile acts," Powell said.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.