As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon makes the rounds here and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell heads to the Middle East, Israel and the Bush administration are divided as to when Israel and the Palestinians should start on the next leg of the road back to peace talks.
Meeting with Sharon at the White House Tuesday, President Bush said the parties should discuss all opportunities to "advance the process" toward the cooling-off period advocated by a commission under former Sen. George Mitchell.
But Sharon said he believes that the cooling-off period should begin after 10 days without violence.
"When we'll see the 10 days is completely quiet and nothing really happened, and that Chairman Arafat did not manipulate us and did not maneuver us, and it's really quiet, then we will start the meaningful cooling-off period," he told reporters after the meeting.
A senior White House official said the Bush administration disagrees, saying that movement to the cooling off period must be based on the reality on the ground, and when there is 100 percent effort by both parties. The White House, which has become more active in recent weeks, is trying to utilize what they see as a opportunity to bring the parties forward.
"The fundamental question my administration makes is, 'Are we making progress? Is peace closer today than it was yesterday?' " Bush said. "We believe the answer is yes."
Earlier, Sharon was adamant in his call for an end to violence.
"One must understand that if last week we had five dead, it's like the United States, Mr. President, having 250 killed, or maybe even 300 people killed by terror," Sharon said.
Bush praised Sharon's patience and leadership and said he understood the pressure Sharon is facing.
Before leaving Washington on Wednesday, Sharon was scheduled to meet with congressional leaders and South African President Thabo Mbeki.
In New York on Monday, Sharon had sounded a harsher tone, saying there had not been even one day of a real cease-fire, and describing Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat not as the leader of a state-in-the-making but as the "head of a terrorist gang."
Israel and the Palestinians differ on the duration of the cooling-off period that must separate fighting and diplomacy. Israel wants a six- to eight-week window of quiet, while the Palestinians say the diplomatic process must resume almost immediately.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States favors a shorter period than does Israel.
After Sharon's meeting at the White House, Powell left for the Middle East, where he is expected to try to salvage the cease-fire agreement reached earlier this month with the aid of CIA Director George Tenet.
A State Department official said Powell's mission will not be to create a timetable or declare that the cooling-off period has begun.
Powell will tell both sides that they can increase efforts against violence. He also will urge Israel to discuss confidence-building measures during the cooling-off period.
Powell is expected to heap praise on Sharon for his restraint, but not to publicly chastise Arafat.
Sharon wants the United States to make clear to Arafat that the Palestinians can't have it both ways, talking about peace while continuing to attack Israelis.
Sharon told Bush that Israel's restraint is not unlimited, and the United States must push harder for Arafat to uphold the cease-fire.
Since the cease-fire was signed, Palestinian attacks have killed eight Israelis and injured 35.
Sharon's restraint has cost him points among the right wing of his Likud Party.
Sharon will meet with Powell in Jerusalem. Israel is worried that Arafat is gaining credit with the international community for agreeing to the cease-fire, while Palestinian violence continues.
"We are very concerned that Arafat is playing a game," an Israeli official in Washington said. "The cease-fire has to be unequivocal."
Powell has said repeatedly that Arafat can not control all outbreaks of violence, and that he is seeking "100 percent effort" from the Palestinian leader, rather than 100 percent results.
"The point of the trip is to continue to encourage them to take the steps necessary to reduce the violence," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Tuesday. "And we think 100 percent effort is needed, and we'll keep working on full implementation of the Mitchell Committee report in all its aspects."
Powell said Monday that he hopes his mission will help "get their assessment of how the situation has developed and see how quickly we can move forward to an even lower level of violence, to the level that the sides say it's time to move into the Mitchell Plan."
A State Department official admitted Powell's trip is "amorphous" and lacks a clear agenda. Powell himself said he is bringing no new proposals to the Middle East; it is believed that he hopes the weight of his position will be enough to bully the parties toward further steps to peace.
Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert with the U.S. Institute for Peace, said Powell and Arafat will talk "general to general," and the secretary of state will make it clear that U.S. support depends on Arafat's cooperation.
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