Sharon Pleased with Charm Offensive in Washington

WASHINGTON, March 21 - Israeli Prime Minister and accused war criminal Ariel Sharon said he is pleased with the result of his charm offensive this week in Washington, his spokesman said early Wednesday.

"There was a connection between him and US President George W. Bush, and he attained the goals he had set out" to get before his visit to Washington Monday and Tuesday, Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin told AFP early Wednesday.

But Sharon's visit was not received well by the Arab and Muslim American communities. In San Francisco and Washington, demonstrations were held to protest Sharon's past crimes against humanity.

Also in Washington, three leading Muslim American organizations held a news conference to unveil an exhibition of Sharon's war crimes. They also called upon their membership to contact the White House and State Department to protest the red carpet treatment the new Israeli prime minister received.

"It is a sad day in America when a war criminal like Ariel Sharon can come to the United States and be treated like dignitaries and heads of state. We call on this Administration to take a closer look at this mans history of war crimes," said Khalid Turanni, executive director of American Muslims for Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, Bush called on Israel to ease the economic sanctions against the Palestinians and said he was "concerned" about the escalating violence.

In deference to Israel, Sharon was invited to the White House before Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdallah II.

Sharon had already attempted to create a rift between the Palestinians and the U.S., by warning the Bush administration against a visit to Washington by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, saying that such a meeting "would be proof that terrorism pays."

The Bush administration has faced enormous pressure from both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups recently after Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent impromptu statement that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel. The comments provoked a diplomatic furor from some Arab states over the weekend. The next day however, a State Department spokesman reiterated the U.S. position that "the status of Jerusalem is a matter to be resolved between the parties."

Powell later explained to Arab American leaders that the incident was a "mischaracterization" on his part. Meanwhile, Jewish leaders expressed "frustration" with Powell's stance on the issue after meeting with him on Wednesday, saying he was not forthcoming with details on the Administration's plan to move the embassy.

In testimony before the House Budget Committee on Thursday, Powell further rebuffed proponents of moving the embassy immediately, saying that the Administration "will decide when it would be appropriate to start that process'' but would approach the issue with "delicacy''.

Sharon said his goals in Washington were to establish close relations with Bush and his administration and close ranks with the US Congress and the American people.

It was mission accomplished, according to Sharon's secretary Uri Shani. "We got a lot of understanding and warmth," he told AFP.

"Our point of view is closer to the Republicans' than the Democrats' and all the meetings were positive," said Rafy Peled, head of the prime minister's office.

Sharon's meetings with the most senior US officials signals a comeback 10 years after his settlement policy made him an outcast among Americans, who saw it as an obstacle to peace in the Middle East.

On the surface, the Israeli prime minister has certain advantages in Washington: Bush's fledgling administration is still trying to finding its bearings; it has not defined its policy on the peace process and has yet to appoint its Middle East experts.

The US government wants to maintain its strategic alliance and its "solid-as-a-rock" friendship Israel, US Defense Secretary Colin Powell said recently, while stressing at the same time that Washington would seek closer relations with several Arab governments.

"Sharon was democratically elected ... He therefore has legitimacy, and the United States are aware that (former US president Bill) Clinton's efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian tack (of the Middle East peace process) has led to failure," international relations professor Marie Jane Deeb told AFP in an interview.


AFP contributed to this report.

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