WASHINGTON – President Bush called Israel's siege of Yasser Arafat's headquarters contrary to the goal of peace and "very unhelpful" in trying to calm the situation in the region.
The president wants to make sure the Israelis' actions do not undermine reform efforts towards peace, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
"Notice," Fleischer added, "that I didn't say anything about the Israelis defending themselves."
He refused to elaborate on that last statement, though the White House has frequently said in the past that while trying to come up with a peace plan, Israel must defend itself from attacks by Palestinian terrorists.
Fleischer's remarks came one day after the Jewish state ceased a three-day pounding on the Ramallah headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. Arafat has been captive in the compound since the assault began, living in the last standing building of the compound.
On Sunday, the third day of the demolition, a White House spokeswoman commented for the first time on the assault, taking a measured approach.
"Israel's actions in and around the [Arafat compound] are not helpful in reducing terrorist violence or promoting Palestinian reforms," said spokeswoman Jeanne Mamo.
Mamo added, "We urge Israel to continue considering the consequences of its actions on progress" toward reaching the goals the president has set: Palestinian elections next year, Arafat's removal as leader and creation of a Palestinian state within three years to exist peacefully with Israel.
The words of warning came as the United States is also encouraging Israel not to defend itself if it is attacked by Iraq during a U.S. military effort to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Israel did not respond in the 1991 Persian Gulf War when it was hit by Scud missiles in 29 attacks.
The White House fears that if Israel responds, the United States will lose the support for military action it has been trying to gain from Arab nations.
Israel has turned the bend on that issue, suggesting that it will refrain from a counter-attack as long as the United States is engaged in a conflict against Iraq.
As for the Palestinians, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said his country remains committed to Bush's ideas but insisted: "The Palestinian fate is in the hands of the Palestinians."
"We are still for peace," Peres said. "We have accepted the vision of President Bush. We didn't change our mind."
The Israeli military began its seige of the Ramallah compound after two homicide bombers launched missions on Wednesday and Thursday last week. In the first attack, an Israeli policeman and the bomber were killed. In the second attack, a homicide bomber from Hamas killed five Israelis and a Scottish seminary student as well as himself.
Mamo said "it is also important for Palestinians to understand that terrorist violence does grave damage to Palestinian aspirations for a Palestinian state."
The Israeli assault on Arafat's compound left him surrounded, and some U.S. officials worried that it could allow him to cast himself as a victim and a hero. However, as Palestinian demonstrators continue to get cut down by the Israeli military, and the White House insists it wants to see the establishment of a Palestinian state, support in the United States still rests primarily with the Israelis.
White House officials did not respond Sunday to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's plea that Bush intervene immediately to stop the Israeli operation. The president also ignored a reporter's question about the Israeli assault as he returned from Camp David, Md.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.