Bush hears tough Saudi message

By NICHOLAS HORROCK, UPI Senior White House Correspondent  |  April 25, 2002 at 9:03 PM
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CRAWFORD, Texas, April 25 (UPI) -- After daylong talks Thursday with Saudi Arabia's crown prince, President Bush again urged Israel to withdraw its forces from the Palestinian territories and bring a peaceful conclusion to the standoffs in Ramallah and Bethlehem.

The president first urged Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to pull back his forces on April 4th. Although some troops have returned to Israel, many remain deployed around Palestinian towns and other forces have entered new areas.

"Israel must finish its withdrawal," the president said Thursday, "including the resolution of the standoffs in Ramallah and Bethlehem in a non-violent way." He also again called upon Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to stop the suicide bombings in Israel.

President Bush said he and 78-year-old Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud share a vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, living in peace. "Our two nations share a vision ... of Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security," Bush said. "And I reiterated that all parties have a responsibility to help achieve that vision."

Bush and a senior administration official who briefed reporters after the meeting described positive exchanges between the two leaders that were warm and not contentious.

"One of the really positive things out of this meeting was the fact that the crown prince and I established a strong personal bond. We spent a lot of time alone, discussing our respective visions, talking about our families.

"I'm convinced the stronger our personal bond is, the more likely it is relations between our countries will be strong," the president said.

Neither the crown prince nor members of his staff spoke to reporters after the meeting and Abdullah and his entourage flew to Houston, Texas. He will be in the United States several days and is giving a speech at Texas A&M University at College Station.

Saudi officials, including the prince's personal diplomatic adviser Adel Jubeir, earlier said the prince was bringing Bush some tough assessments of anger in the Arab world over Israel's military actions in the occupied territories. Saudi officials particularly deplored Bush's remark that Sharon was "a man of peace" and Jubeir said the Saudis feel Sharon "will drag the region over a cliff" if he is given a free hand.

Asked by reporters whether the characterization of Sharon came up in his meeting with the prince, Bush did not respond directly but said Abdullah knows "I expect Israel to withdraw just like I made it clear to Israel. And we expect them to be finished."

The president in his remarks seemed to hint he wanted more help from Abdullah to get Arafat to stop Palestinian suicide attacks.

"I think he recognizes that America can't do it alone, that it's going to require a unified effort. He's a man with enormous influence in the Middle East."

On Thursday, The New York Times reported the prince was bringing a very harsh message to Bush and that the strategic relationship might be at stake. But Jabeir said later Thursday the 60-year friendship of Saudi Arabia and the United States "remains strong."

Both parties denied there was any discussion of what the paper said was a Saudi threat to cut off oil supplies to the United States in retaliation for Washington's support of Israel. The Saudi delegation reaffirmed the kingdom's intention to provide a steady supply of oil to America.

"We've always been a reliable source of oil, and we'll continue to be," Jubeir said.

Abdullah, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, arrived at Waco's international airport shortly after 9 a.m. CDT and drove to Bush's Prairie Chapel Ranch in a closely guarded motorcade. The talks began at 10:30 a.m.

The prince met with Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card.

For many things, Saudi Arabia is crucial to U.S. activities in the region. The United States has air bases and other military assets there that could be vital should Bush launch military action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Jabeir said the prince would tell the president that Saudi Arabia saw the question of Iraq as "an arms-control" issue and not a "war on terrorism issue." He said the question should be deal with through legal channels, apparently ruling out Saudi support for U.S. military action against Iraq.

Saudis could cripple a U.S. initiative by refusing to let U.S. aircraft and other units operate out of Saudi Arabia.

Last month Abdullah presented a land-for-peace proposal at the Arab summit in Beirut. The plan stipulated an Israeli return to its pre-1967 boundaries and the establishment of Palestinian state. In return, Arab nations would normalize their relations with Israel, recognizing its right to exist within secure borders.

The plan appeared dead on arrival with Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but the Israeli leader said he was willing to negotiate with the Saudis, which he is not with Arafat.

Jebeir said Thursday that Sharon cannot choose whom he negotiates with and the representative of the Palestinian people is Arafat. Jubeir also said his government wants the parties to go to a serious peace negotiation where all parties are committed to coming up with a "final solution" to the Palestinian question.

Bush approved of Abdullah's plan when he unveiled it March 27 and became the first U.S. head of state to formally back a Palestinian homeland in a U.N. speech last year. But Abdullah's effort to get Bush to disavow Israeli actions puts enormous pressure on the president: There is a large pro-Israeli domestic political constituency, and many conservative members of his own party believe he should condemn Arafat as a terrorist and encourage Israel to destroy his Palestinian Authority.

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