Bush stresses unflagging US support for Israel


US: Stressing what his spokesman described as "America's unflagging support for Israel", President Bush yesterday appealed to Israel's Prime Minister, Mr Ariel Sharon, not to irrevocably turn his back on the Palestinian leader, Mr Yasser Arafat.

Mr Bush, in their meeting at the White House, also urged Israel to ease the economic stranglehold it has on the Palestinian Authority. He wants Israel specifically to release sales taxes impounded since January 2001. Under the 1993 Oslo agreement, the taxes are supposed to be turned over to the Palestinian Authority.

At what was their fifth meeting, the two leaders discussed US concerns over Israeli reoccupations of Palestinian cities, the Bethlehem stand-off and the prospects for a regional peace conference. Mr Bush's spokesman stressed that the meeting was not expected to produce any specific breakthrough but should be seen as one in a process in which the US attempted to bring the parties together gradually.

Today Mr Bush meets Jordan's King Abdullah as part of US efforts to engage moderate Arab states in applying pressure on the Palestinians. The Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal, is also in town for meetings with Administration officials.

Diplomats say there are wide differences about the agenda for a peace conference, with Mr Sharon insisting it be confined to working on an interim agreement and the Arabs wanting a comprehensive settlement.

"The President understands that Yasser Arafat is seen by the Palestinian people as their leader," the White House spokesman, Mr Ari Fleischer, told journalists ahead of the meeting with Mr Sharon. At the same time he criticised Mr Arafat, calling for a democratic Palestinian state, free of corruption and terrorism. "The President thinks Yasser Arafat has not only let him down; he has let down the Palestinian people. And he would like to see more progress by the Palestinian Authority," Mr Fleischer said.