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Sharon sounds out U.S. on additional military aid

Boost was promised to Israel by Clinton administration

WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was extending feelers Tuesday to President Bush and congressional leaders on a boost in U.S. military aid, promised by former President Clinton as part of a now-abandoned plan for a settlement with the Palestinians.

At lunch with Bush and then at a larger White House meeting, Sharon was taking soundings on whether the new administration's affinity for Sharon's government might translate into additional assistance. Israel receives $3 billion Israel annually and the White House already has requested a $60 million boost in military aid.

Sharon arrived in a long, black limousine, which took him across Pennsylvania Avenue from Blair House, where presidential guests stay. He made no statement as he walked past an erect Marine who extended a salute to the ex-general.

Sharon, here for a two-day visit designed to bolster U.S. support for his go-slow peacemaking posture, came with no specific shopping list or even an aid request with a dollar sign on it, said an Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But the Clinton administration promised Israel $800 million over two years, which Congress did not act on, and Sharon has stressed Israel's need to boost its security in the face of what the prime minister has called an increasing threat of terrorism and Iranian missiles.

After calling at the White House, Sharon was to meet at the Capitol, in sequence, with Senate leaders, Vice President Dick Cheney, House Republican leaders and House Democratic leaders. He planned to end his visit Tuesday night and fly to New York for a meeting Wednesday with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

There was no indication that Bush and his top advisers were discouraged by Sharon's hard-line stance and his inclination to defer a resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians until violence subsides significantly.

In fact, administration officials have assured Sharon they want Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to speak out against attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians and to take other steps to quiet the Palestinian populace, which Sharon has promised to help by scaling back curbs on the Palestinian economy.

Sharon also is looking for a bigger role in U.S. missile defense planning. And he would relish Bush's reaffirmation of a presidential campaign pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thereby bolstering what Sharon says is Israel's right to eternal sovereignty over an undivided city.

However, the Bush administration already has aligned itself with the previous administration of Bill Clinton in declaring the city's future is for Israel and the Palestinians to determine through negotiations.

In a speech Monday to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby, Sharon accused the Palestinians of instigating acts of terror but focused equally on Iran and Iraq, saying they were building up missile arsenals that endanger Israel and the rest of the region.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is trying to restore his mass destruction weapons capability and Iran is providing unprecedented support for terrorist groups, Sharon said.

Much of Iran's ballistic missile technology comes from North Korea, but it also is emanating from Russia, the prime minister said.

As a result, for Israel and the United States, he said, "missile defense is an absolute imperative." Sharon said he was proud to say Israel was a U.S. partner in developing defenses against missile attack.

Calling also for more cooperation among democracies against terrorism, Sharon ruled out a resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians until violence subsides.

He ruled out an overall settlement and said he supported the "more realistic approach" of a long-term interim agreement.

At the same time, Sharon said he would not reverse his easing of restrictions on the Palestinian population — a course urged on him by Secretary of State Colin Powell.

But Powell said Palestinian leader Arafat "must understand, first and foremost, that he will gain nothing from violence. Israel will not negotiate while Israeli civilians and soldiers are under fire."