Sharon pushing Bush to cut all ties with Arafat

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Israel's Ariel Sharon began a three-day mission to Washington yesterday to cheer on President Bush in his campaign against the "axis of evil" and to argue for deepening the isolation of Yasser Arafat.

The Israeli prime minister is urging Mr Bush to cut diplomatic contacts with Mr Arafat but deal with his senior officials. But the ex-general will also urge Mr Bush to ignore European misgivings about moves against his "axis of evil", which includes Israel's two chief enemies – Iran and Iraq.

Israel has accused Tehran of supplying 8,000 new missiles to Hizbollah in Lebanon, capable of hitting much of northern Israel. Without providing any proof, Israel's Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, has alleged that Iran has dispatched Revolutionary Guards to Lebanon to help the guerrillas, but a trip there by The Independent's Robert Fisk found no sign of them.

The Iranian Defence Minister, Ali Shakhmani, warned that Iran would respond to an Israeli attack with "something the Israelis never have imagined". Israel's chief of staff, Lieutenant General Shaul Mofaz, told Tehran that Israel had "other capabilities" in case of an attack.

Israel has long complained about Iran's nuclear and missile programmes but, in the aftermath of 11 September, its hyperactive publicists have churned out allegations that Tehran controls a coalition of forces ranged against Israel. In particular, it has argued that there is a "triangle of terror" comprising Iran, Hizbollah and the Palestinian Authority.

This case – which ignores the contempt with which Iran's leaders regard Mr Arafat – received a boost in January when Israeli commandos intercepted the Karine-A cargo ship in the Red Sea and found 50 tons of weapons on board. Israel concluded that the arms were supplied by Iran and were being smuggled to the Gaza Strip by the Palestinian Authority with Hizbollah's assistance. The United States agreed and decided that Mr Arafat was double-dealing – talking to them about a ceasefire while secretly stocking up on weaponry. His standing in Washington fell to its lowest point for years.

Mr Sharon wants Mr Bush to cultivate a new Palestinian leadership by dealing only with Mr Arafat's more compliant officials. The US seems to balk at this, concluding that it has no choice but to keep pressing Mr Arafat to stop the violence. Freezing him out altogether would be sure to deepen the strong conviction in the Arab world that Washington is irrevocably pro-Israeli. It also appears to recognise that Mr Sharon's ambition to create an alternative leadership is doomed, as it would be rejected by the Palestinian militias.

Efforts by Mr Arafat to emphasise his commitment to the two-state solution by publishing an article in The New York Times have done little to improve his position. Inside the occupied territories, his authority is fraying further. This was evident in Jenin yesterday where dozens of Palestinian gunmen stormed a police jail and freed six militants. A further 20 were said to have "escaped" in Nablus, apparently fearing they would be bombed in their cells.

Earlier, Israeli jets fired missiles into a Palestinian security building in reprisal for Wednesday's killing of three Israelis, including an 11-year-old girl, in the Jordan Valley settlement of Hamra by a Palestinian gunman disguised as a soldier.

As Mr Sharon glides around Washington – more popular in the White House than he has ever been in his 11 months in power – some PLO officials believe their leader is pursuing a disastrous course. They say Mr Arafat should admit the Karine-A arms were bound for Palestinian territory, while explaining that they were to be used for self-defence in the face of an enemy that uses tanks and F-16s against his people, and which has no intention of making peace.