US President George W. Bush reportedly told Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres on Thursday at the White House that he could not understand why Palestinian adults were "pushing 16- and 17-year-olds to commit suicide instead of protecting them," according to an Israeli official, said a report by the Jerusalem Post.
The paper also said that the Mitchell panel investigating the violence will not hold Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon responsible for inciting the Intifada.
"The president said that it's a very difficult situation when adults are pushing 16- and 17-year-olds to commit suicide instead of protecting them. He said, 'I just can't understand this,'" the official told the paper.
During their hour-long meeting in the Oval Office, Bush told Peres he is ready and willing to visit Israel again - his first visit was in 1998 - but did not specify when he might make the trip.
Displaying a keen interest in the situation on the ground, Bush asked Peres whether the Palestinian Authority has rearrested prisoners released at the start of the Intifada, and quizzed him about the atmosphere inside the US-organized bilateral security talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
"The president asked how serious the Israelis thought the security talks with the Palestinians were," the official said.
WHITE HOUSE RECEIVES MITCHELL REPORT
As Peres and Bush discussed the ongoing violence, the White House received a copy of the Mitchell Commission report on the origins of the Intifada. The US was reviewing the text Thursday and was then due to share it with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan before handing it over to Israel and the PA, said the Post.
The paper said that the US has so far subscribed to the Israeli view that Arafat is primarily responsible for the violence and has signaled its disappointment with him by withholding an invitation to the White House.
The report, a draft of which is expected to be presented Friday, will not hold Prime Minister Ariel Sharon responsible for inciting the violence by his visit to the Temple Mount last September, as the Palestinians have claimed, an Israeli official acquainted with the report was quoted as saying.
According to this official, it is unlikely that the report will blame either party exclusively for the violence, or recommend the dispatching of an international observer force to the region. The report is, however, expected to criticize Israel for its settlement activity.
US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk is to present a draft of the report to Minister without Portfolio Dan Naveh Friday. Naveh is the Sharon government's liaison to the committee.
Meanwhile, Faisal Husseini, the PLO Executive Committee member in charge of Jerusalem affairs, on Thursday called on the Bush administration to invite Arafat "quickly."
"They can't go on listening only to the Israeli side," Husseini said at the National Press Club in Washington. Husseini may meet Friday with Bruce Riedel, the National Security Council's senior director for Near East affairs, said the Israeli paper.
US TO WORK CLOSELY WITH EGYPT, JORDAN
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Peres and Bush agreed to work "very closely with Egypt and Jordan" in order to help rebuild trust and confidence and bring about a return to dialogue.
Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, who met with Peres for a half-hour Wednesday night, suggested that Sharon and Arafat meet in Doha to try to iron out the terms of a cease-fire.
After the meeting, Peres told reporters that he was leaving the Oval Office "reassured and with a sense that we can move ahead in the direction of peace,"
Peres also met yesterday afternoon with Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Describing the Bush-Peres meeting, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said: "They had a good exchange, reflecting our strong relationship with Israel and our long association with Foreign Minister Peres, who has been a tireless advocate for peace in the Middle East."
"For the president's part, he also stated that violence must be reduced immediately and that the parties should continue their security discussions," Fleischer added.
However, “Bush doesn't want to impose, he wants to help," Peres told reporters, quoted by The Associated Press.
Depicted as standing aside and unable to accomplish much in the midst of seven months of bloody violence, the administration with Secretary of State Colin Powell in the lead is now moving beyond calls for restraint to presenting an active three-point agenda, said the report.
Ahead of Peres' meeting with Bush, Powell outlined the US goals as "going down the escalator of violence," encouraging Israel to lift economic curbs on the Palestinians and a resumption of peace talks, said the AP.
In the field, fighting continued as usual.
Palestinian forces opened fire on an Israeli vehicle south of Jerusalem on Thursday evening.
The attack took place on a bypass road adjacent to the Neve Daniel Jewish settlement in the Gush Etzion area south of occupied Jerusalem.
There were no wounded in the shooting, though nine bullets hit the vehicle, Army Radio reported.
Palestinians also opened fire on and damaged an army vehicle adjacent to Modi'in Illit.
Army posts came under Palestinian fire near the Egyptian border and near Gadid settlement in Gaza the same night. There were no wounded in either of these two attacks, said the Jerusalem Post.
Meanwhile, three Palestinians wearing military uniforms and carrying weapons were captured Thursday afternoon in the Hebron area.
According to Israel Radio, the three were caught by a special unit.
ARAFAT TO MEET ZIMBABWE'S MUGABE
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat was scheduled to hold talks with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe on the Middle East peace process on Friday, officials in Harare told Reuters.
Arafat arrived in the country on Thursday evening from South Africa where he attended a special meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).
Zimbabwe is a member of the NAM committee on Palestine.
The NAM committee meeting is scheduled to continue in South Africa on Friday followed by a statement on the movement's plan of action.
Arafat on Thursday urged the NAM to back his call for an unarmed international observer force in the West Bank and Gaza – Albawaba.com
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