US President George W Bush pressed Ariel Sharon to move forward on a US-backed Middle East peace plan, but the Israeli prime minister said violence must end first.
‘‘One should not compromise with terror,’’ Sharon said.
The Oval Office meeting, a second for Sharon since Bush took office six months ago, highlighted their disagreement over how to proceed with a peace process amid continuing violence.
It also reflected the administration’s stepped-up role in the Middle East after being accused of neglecting the region early in Bush’s term.
A fragile ceasefire hung in the balance, with Sharon under pressure at home to respond with force to violence blamed on the Palestinians.
Secretary of State Colin Powell headed to the region late yesterday to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, including Yasser Arafat.
Sitting stiffly in straight-back chairs, Bush and Sharon struggled to praise each other for working toward peace without conceding their bottom lines: Bush wants the ceasefire to hold and progress to continue toward peace talks while Sharon insists that little can be done until there is a ‘‘full cessation of hostilities.’’
‘‘I believe he’s shown patience and is willing to lead,’’ Bush said. ‘‘I understand the pressure he’s under.’’
Sharon replied: ‘‘We regard your administration to be a very friendly one.’’
Diplomatic niceties aside, the leaders met against a backdrop of nine months of violence: Sharon says there have been dozens of attacks on Israelis since the nation declared a unilateral cease-fire; Palestinians blame Jerusalem for the killing Sunday of a Palestinian militant.
Despite the violence, Bush said he was optimistic the peace process could resume. ‘‘We’re gaining by inches,’’ he said. ‘‘Progress is in inches, not miles but nevertheless an inch is better than nothing.
‘‘Today is my opportunity to once again to look (Sharon) in the eye and tell him he’s got no better friend than the United States, and as well to tell him that we all must work to break the cycle of violence so that we can begin the process of implementing the Mitchell agreement,’’ Bush said.
An international commission headed by former Senator George Mitchell urged both sides to begin with a cease-fire before entering into a ‘‘cooling-off period,’’ making gestures to each other and returning to negotiations.
In advance of his meeting with Sharon, Bush advisers said the president intended to urge the Israeli to declare a cooling-off period regardless of whether violence has completely ceased.
Afterwards, advisers said Bush did not insist that Sharon take that next step toward peace, although he urged the Israeli to keep moving forward.
Bush himself stopped just short of calling for a cooling-off period in a public session with reporters, but suggested that Israel may not have ‘‘a realistic assessment of what is possible on the ground.
‘‘We’re going to talk to the prime minister about his attitudes.’’
Sharon was more blunt, saying peace can only be achieved if the parties are ‘‘very strict’’ with the Palestinians. ‘‘Israel will not negotiate under fire and under terror,’’ he said during the photo opportunity with Bush.
The prime minister said he wants 10 days of no violence before beginning the next stage, the cooling-off period.
Previously, he had talked about a violence-free period but had not spelled out the 10-day concept.
‘‘One should not compromise with terror. And therefore, I believe that if we stick to what we have been saying for such a long time that it should be a full cessation of terror before we move to the other phase,’’ Sharon said.
He also met with Powell, who was heading to the Middle East Tuesday evening under orders from Bush to urge Arafat to ‘‘take better control of his security forces.’’
In an interview late Tuesday, Sharon said he also disagreed with Bush over whether Israel should stop construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The Mitchell commission report calls on Israel to implement a complete freeze in construction, and Sharon said Israel has accepted the report.
However, he said Israel must be allowed to continue construction ‘‘to satisfy the ongoing needs of the settlers.’’ Presenting his report, Mitchell specifically ruled that out.