WASHINGTON – Mixing conciliation with tough talk, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) pledged Tuesday to cooperate with Mahmoud Abbas (search) but said the Palestinian leader's statements criticizing violence as a political tool "must be translated into real action on the ground."
Sharon could not have picked a friendlier audience. While he is criticized at home by some on the left and others on the right for planning to surrender Gaza (search), some 4,000 American Jews attending a pro-Israel lobby's annual policy conference applauded him vigorously.
They also cheered when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (search), D-N.Y., sounded the overriding theme of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (search) meeting, saying, "We must demand that the Palestinian Authority dismantle the structures of terror."
Sharon mixed tough statements with others that suggested compromise. He said, for instance, that Israel would not accept Palestinian refugees, that it would retain an undivided Jerusalem as its eternal capital, and that Israeli Jews would remain on the West Bank. He referred to the contested land as Judea and Samaria, as in the Hebrew Bible.
On the other hand, he said when he returns to Israel he will seek the release of 400 Palestinian prisoners, on top of 500 already set free. He also said the U.S.-backed road map was the only workable plan for peacemaking and he had friendly things to say about Abbas, who meets with President Bush on Thursday at the White House.
"We see a great opportunity in the election of Abbas" as Yasser Arafat's successor, Sharon said. "We will do our utmost to cooperate with the new Palestinian leadership."
But the dominant theme in his speech was that security was Israel's "red line," and that he would make no move that jeopardized it.
"There is one thing that we will not make any compromise, not now and not in the future, and that is Israel's security," he said.
Noting Abbas has spoken out against terror attacks on Israel, which are in sharp decline but have not dried up entirely, Sharon said, "His statements must be translated into real action."
On the other hand, the prime minister said, "We are willing to help Abbas as much as we can so long as we do not risk Israel's security."
Bush was not in the audience, but much of what Sharon said seemed intended to guide the president in his Mideast policymaking and especially in his talks with Abbas.
Sharon, not usually a joke-teller, said he noticed when he met with Bush at his Texas ranch last month that the president had fewer cows than he has on his own farm in Israel.
In sum, Sharon, a tough-minded former general who parted with many Likud party hard-liners by deciding to withdraw from Gaza, signaled that violence that jeopardized Israel's security would severely limit the possibility of other concessions.
Sharon also indicated he is in no hurry to reach a final accord with the Palestinians, who at a minimum claim all of the West Bank, and part of Jerusalem, as well as Gaza.
"Full peace only will be realized after full security is achieved and terror is eliminated," Sharon said.
Outside the massive convention center, diverse groups demonstrated and held up placards. They ranged widely in opinion, including "Hamas, Abbas Makes No Difference," "Israel Does Not Represent World Jewry" and "Leaving Gaza Creates a Terrorist State."
As Sharon spoke, a woman who said her home was in Gaza rose from her seat and shouted at Sharon. She was removed by guards. The woman is among 7,000 Israeli Jews who will lose their homes at the hand of the one-time champion of Jewish settlements.