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Friday, 8 February, 2002, 21:33 GMT
Bush resists Israeli pressure over Arafat
Ariel Sharon (l) shakes hands with George Bush
A fourth meeting in 12 months between the two allies
US President George W Bush has resisted Israeli pressure for the United States to sever all ties with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

[It is] a step in the right direction, but it must be followed by other steps especially to stop Israel's aggression and its siege of the Palestinian people

Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rudeinah
He said his administration would maintain pressure on Mr Arafat to halt attacks by Palestinian militants on Israel.

At a news conference in Washington that followed talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Mr Bush repeated his recent strong criticism of Mr Arafat but stopped short of following Israel's policy of ending links with him.

Mr Sharon continued from Washington to New York, where he was to hold a series of political and private meetings.

Mr Arafat's spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeinah welcomed Mr Bush's insistence on keeping diplomatic doors open as a "step in the right direction", but called for other steps "to stop Israel's aggression and its siege of the Palestinian people".

Feb 2001 Wins landslide victory and builds national unity government
Aug 2001 Israeli forces assassinate Mustafa Zibri, PFLP leader
Oct 2001Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi assassinated by Palestinian militants
Dec 2001 Yasser Arafat declared "irrelevant", relations cut with Palestinian Authority
Jan 2002 Meets senior Palestinian officials for the first time since coming to power
See also:
In depth: Israel and the Palestinians

The meeting at the White House - the fourth Bush-Sharon summit since the two came to power last year - comes against a backdrop of escalating violence, with Palestinian militant attacks and Israeli air raids occurring almost daily.

Mr Bush expressed sympathy for the plight of ordinary Palestinians who were not involved in militant actions.

"I worry about stories and pictures I see of people going hungry, and children not being educated, and deep concerns etched on the faces of moms and dads who happen to be Palestinian," he said.

Mr Sharon described Mr Arafat - who has been confined to his office in the West Bank by Israeli tanks for the past two months - as an obstacle to peace, but both he and Mr Bush envisaged a Palestinian state once terrorism had been dealt with.

Later, Mr Sharon ruled out ever having Mr Arafat as a "peace partner", saying the Palestinian leader had "disqualified himself by heading a coalition of terror".

The vice president told me: 'As far as I am concerned, you can even hang [Yasser Arafat]'

Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer
Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who was also in Washington, had earlier told journalists of a more sympathetic hearing from Vice President Dick Cheney - who will tour the Middle East in March.

Having reportedly stated that no one held "a more extreme opinion" than himself about Yasser Arafat, some even harsher remarks about the Palestinian leader were later attributed to Mr Cheney by the Israeli minister.

"The vice president told me: 'As far as I am concerned, you can even hang him,'" Mr Ben-Eliezer told the mass circulation paper Yediot Aharanot.

The violence in the Middle East, which has claimed more than 1,000 lives since the Palestinian intifada (uprising) began 17 months ago, shows no sign of abating.

Mr Arafat told the BBC he was doing all he could to stop militant attacks against Israelis - but his hands were tied because of the Israeli blockade on him and his security forces.

Mr Arafat has yet to be invited to Washington by the Bush administration.

The BBC's Barbara Plett in Jerusalem
"The Israeli press are saying the Americans are completely on board"
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
"We hope that President Bush the son will complete the mission of his father"
Sharon's advisor Dore Gold
"Arafat wants violence and negotiations together"
UN Middle East representative Terje Larsen
"I do believe Chairman Arafat is... able to deliver a peace deal"
See also:

08 Feb 02 | Middle East
Tension in US-Israeli relationship
06 Feb 02 | Middle East
US urged to back Arafat rivals
15 Jan 02 | Middle East
Analysis: The CIA and the arms ship
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