JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Wednesday intensified his criticism of Secretary of State Colin Powell's decision to meet with Yasser Arafat, saying there can be no peace with the Palestinian leader because he stands at the center of "an empire of terror."
In an off-camera interview with Fox News, his first with an American news organization since Israel confined Arafat to his West Bank headquarters last month, Sharon revealed he had also sent a message through Vice President Dick Cheney advising Syria to rein in the Hezbollah terrorist group or face a massive Israeli retaliation.
As he prepared to visit Jenin, the northern town where 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in a booby-trapped building on Tuesday, Sharon vented his contempt for his longtime Palestinian nemesis.
"He chose a strategy of terror and formed a coalition of terror," Sharon said. He claimed Arafat maintained an "open channel" of communication with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and that one of Arafat’s ministers had visited Baghdad as recently as December.
Sharon also expressed his impatience with Powell, who plans to meet with Arafat later this week, a decision Sharon called a "tragic mistake." Arafat has been confined by Israeli troops to his Ramallah headquarters since March 29.
"Powell knows who Arafat is, but the U.S. is having a problem with the Middle East now and wants it to be quiet so it can get on with its own war against terror," Sharon said. "The Arab world is taking advantage of that and saying if Israel does not agree to conditions that it cannot accept, that would mean it cannot survive, then there will be no peace in the Middle East.
"Arafat stands behind the terror in the world today. Israel will continue to act against terror. President Bush said one should not negotiate with terrorists. Well? Israel faces terror every day," said Sharon.
"With Arafat it will never be peace because he doesn’t want peace. He is now isolated, and look what he’s doing. So what do you think he was doing before he was isolated? The PLO is an empire of terror. They look into your eyes and lie."
But Sharon conceded Arafat is still secure in his role as Palestinian leader. "No one will dare to act like they could replace him. After all, he’s accepted as legitimate by the secretary of state of the world’s only superpower. I said it was a tragic mistake. It’s a mistake not just from Israel’s point of view, but for American interests."
Sharon, who said recently that he made a mistake by not killing Arafat 20 years ago when Israeli troops under his command had the Palestinian Liberation Organization leader trapped in Beirut, dismissed as a suggestion Arafat is cramped with his followers into two rooms without electricity, and that Israel refuses to let him meet Powell elsewhere.
"Arafat claims he has no electricity, but he has electricity. He just prefers to have pictures taken of him by candlelight so he looks more pitiful. He says he has two rooms. Let me tell you, he has about 20 rooms down there. He doesn’t want to leave that headquarters to meet Powell because he thinks we’ll go in and take the murderers who are there with him. He won’t leave because he’s afraid."
Sharon said Arafat keeps an open channel of communication with Saddam, even now, and said Saddam is involved in the current conflict with Israel. Sharon also accused Iraq of smuggling weapons to the Palestinians through Jordan and across the Dead Sea. He also claimed Arafat’s Minister of Finance, Maher al Masri, visited Baghdad twice last year — in October and December.
"I told Cheney Israel would stand by the U.S. in whatever decision it makes with regard to an attack against Iraq," said Sharon. "We believe the U.S. will succeed if it decides to go ahead with such an attack. We also believe that if Saddam is backed into a corner, he will launch ground to ground missiles into Israeli territory. And in an extreme scenario, he will unleash nonconventional weapons — chemical and biological, but not nuclear. In addition, Hezbollah in Lebanon may activate its range of missiles against Israel."
Sharon said he told Cheney: "We are both fighting for the same values — the eradication of terrorism. It is very important that we not take any steps or make any decisions that would undermine the future security of the state of Israel. You will succeed against Saddam. But we have to stay and live here in the region."
Sharon noted an increase in attacks across the Lebanese-Israeli border by Hezbollah, a Syrian and Iranian-backed group. "I delivered a message for the Syrians via the United States but it was passed on at a low level the first time and nothing happened," Sharon said.
"Then I talked to Cheney and said, if the shelling from Hezbollah continues, Israel will have to take extremely severe action against Syria and Lebanon. Cheney called Bashar Assad on Tuesday and relayed the message, but so far I haven’t seen anything change.
"I told Cheney exactly what we are going to do. The message was very clear."
John Moody is Executive Vice President, Executive Editor for Fox News. A former Rome bureau chief for Time magazine, he is the author of four books including "Pope John Paul II : Biography."