WASHINGTON — President Bush and his foreign policy advisers weighed their options Friday on whether to limit or sever relations with Yasser Arafat, sending a blunt message to the Palestinian leader to prevent attacks against Israelis or face the consequences.
Bush said he was "very disappointed" in Arafat, particularly over an attempt to smuggle a shipload of weapons from Iran to the Palestinians.
"He must make a full effort to rout out terror in the Middle East," Bush told reporters during an appearance Friday in Portland, Maine. Instead, the president said, Arafat was "enhancing terror."
Bush's top national security advisers held a meeting on Friday to discuss options, which range from cutting diplomatic relations with Arafat's Palestinian Authority to suspending further U.S. efforts to broker a cease-fire between the Israelis and Palestinians and bring an end to 16 months of fighting.
A complete break with Arafat, while dramatic, is considered the least likely U.S. response because it would alienate America's Arab allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and risk undermining support for the global war on terror, analysts said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell would not specify the administration's next move. "All kinds of options are out there," he told reporters in Washington.
The Bush administration's tone toward Arafat has hardened in recent days as militant attacks against Israel have continued. Likewise, the administration has been less vocal about criticizing Israel's military reprisals in the cycle of attacks and counter-attacks.
The latest round came on Friday, when a Palestinian suicide bomber killed himself on a crowded Tel Aviv pedestrian street, wounding 24 other people. The Israelis responded late Friday night with strikes by F-16 warplanes on Palestinian Authority buildings in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Arafat is confined to his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, his compound hemmed in by Israeli tanks.
Bush administration officials also were agitated by a letter Arafat sent Bush last week in which the Palestinian leader said he knew nothing about a ship laden with 50 tons of weapons that was intercepted by Israel earlier this month in the Red Sea. Israel said the ship was piloted by a Palestinian official and the arms it carried came from Iran.
Powell spoke to Arafat by telephone on Wednesday to again demand a full account of the Palestinian Authority's role in the arms-smuggling operation. Powell also repeated the U.S. insistence that Arafat restrain militants operating from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"We continue to give a strong message to Chairman Arafat that he must act, and we continue to review our policy with respect to the Palestinian Authority under Chairman Arafat, and I expect I'll be speaking to him again in the future to see what he is able to do or what progress we can make," Powell said.
In Ramallah, Arafat adviser and spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh (CQ) said Israel was unduly influencing U.S. foreign policy in the region.
"The Israelis are pressuring Bush to act against the Palestinians. This game will damage the peace process and lead to nowhere," said Abu Rdeneh. "Peace needs a partner, an elected legitimate partner, which is Yasser Arafat. We should see America putting pressure on Israel, not vice versa."
Danny Ayalon, foreign policy adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Arafat will respond only to "extreme pressure" and he said the Bush administration threats were well-directed.
"It's only reflective of the reality. Arafat is almost single-handedly responsible for the terror here," Ayalon said.
Sharon is scheduled to visit the White House on Feb. 7, in what will be his fourth meeting with Bush. The president has never met with Arafat.
The administration is coming under increasing pressure from Congress, particularly from Republicans, to take a harder line against Arafat. Dozens of House and Senate members visited Israel during the winter recess.
"Yasser Arafat has proven himself to be either an ineffective leader or a terrorist. Whatever the case may be, Arafat can no longer be trusted to broker peace," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a member of the House International Relations Committee.
But analysts said it was unlikely that the United States would break ties with Arafat, who remains the internationally recognized symbol of the Palestinian people.
"The feeling among our Arab allies in the Gulf and in places like Egypt and Jordan is that Arafat is still the best hope to achieve a negotiated peace," said Wyche Fowler, U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Clinton administration and a former senator from Georgia.
Middle East correspondent Larry Kaplow contributed to this report.