White House fury at Sharon accusation

War on Terrorism: Israel
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The Independent Online

A public row has broken out between Israel and the US as the White House rejected Ariel Sharon's charge that Washington was "appeasing" Arab countries.

The rift underlines the strains imposed by Israel's crackdown on Palestinian militants over US efforts to bring Muslim countries into its anti-terror coalition.

President Bush's spokes-man yesterday described as "unacceptable" the comments of the Israeli prime minister, in which he likened US behaviour to that of European democracies towards Hitler over Czechoslovakia in 1938. The spokes- man, Ari Fleischer, said Washington would continue to press Israelis and Palestinians to cease violence and restart a political dialogue.

"Israel has no stronger friend and ally in the world," he said. "The US is not doing anything to appease the Arabs at Israel's expense."

Yesterday, Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, spoke to Mr Sharon to convey Washington's displeasure at the outburst. Contributing to Mr Sharon's irritation was a leak from the State Department that General Powell had been planning a major Middle East initiative – confirmation that Mr Bush saw a Palestinian state as part of a Middle East peace settlement – only for everything to be put on hold by the 11 September attacks. Israel instantly suspected this might contain concessions to the Arab cause.

In a sense, the dispute is inevitable. Mr Sharon has public opinion to contend with, the US must look to the Arab countries it is courting. But the angry words are proof that US support for Israel is complicating Mr Bush's efforts to persuade Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others to join the coalition against Osama bin Laden. The more severely Israel cracks down on the Palestinians, the harder this task becomes. In 1990, when the US was trying to enlist Arab states in its campaign to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, Israel refused to be provoked, even when Saddam fired Scud missiles at it. This time, however, Mr Sharon has served notice that Israel considers itself alone and will do whatever it takes to restore order.

Yesterday, that extended to sending tanks into Palestinian controlled Hebron, killing five Palestinians and effectively marking the end of the "ceasefire" agreed last month. Temporarily, the US has been forced to choose between Israel and its anti-terrorist alliance. Yesterday, it went for the latter.