WASHINGTON, June 5 (UPI) -- In the wake of a suicide bombing in Israel Wednesday that killed 17, the White House appeared to be shifting away from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, pointedly telling reporters that President George W. Bush is less focused on dealing with any particular individual in the Palestinian Authority.
Asked whether the White House would yet again ask Arafat to tamp down terrorist bombings among his people, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Wednesday that Bush was "less focused" on dealing with "any one individual," a change from the administration's previous entreaties to Arafat to control extremist factions.
"The president this morning condemns the ... terror attack that took place in Israel in the strongest terms," said Fleischer, saying Bush urged the Palestinian Authority to develop a reliable security force that could stop or prevent the attacks.
The statement was a shift from the Bush White House's past demands in statements following terror attacks on Israelis that Arafat reign in suicide bombers from primarily the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade and Hamas militant groups. Other radical groups Arafat has tried to quell include the Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Fleischer would not say whether the administration was marginalizing Arafat and talking with other Palestinian leaders.
Israeli officials told United Press International Wednesday the U.S. government has given no official assurances that it would negotiate reforms with Palestinian Authority officials other than Arafat. Calls to the State Department were not immediately returned.
Saeb Erakat, chief Palestinian negotiator, Jibril Rajoub, chief of security for the West Bank or Mohammed Dahlan, chief of security for the Gaza Strip, could be among the Palestinian officials with whom the administration has been negotiating directly. Erakat has a history of dealing with U.S. officials.
Bush embarks on aggressive Mideast diplomacy starting this week with a meeting on Friday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Israeli officials said it was unlikely that Mubarak and Sharon will meet though their visits overlap.
In early April as Israel was rocked almost daily by suicide bombings, Bush repeatedly urged Arafat to "stop the violence" and "show leadership" as head of the Palestinian people. He pushed both Sharon and Arafat to return to the principles of the security plan outlined by CIA Director George Tenet. That plan, he said, would be a path to the political negotiations brokered by former Sen. George Mitchell.
While openly backing what it called Israel's right to defend itself, Bush pushed for Sharon to remove his military forces from Palestinian territories -- particularly the city of Ramallah where Arafat was confined to his headquarters for nearly a month. Bush in May told Arafat his freedom was a chance to prove his leadership.
Despite the White House's position that Arafat had control over the terrorist activity, Bush stopped short of calling the Arab leader a terrorist or invoking what has become known as the Bush Doctrine, which states a person or country that harbors or assists terrorists would be considered terrorists.
Israeli officials said Bush requested the meeting with Sharon, but that it remained "tentative" depending on events in the region. Tenet and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns both are expected to brief Bush on Palestinian Authority reform negotiations before the president's meeting with Sharon, the White House said.