WASHINGTON – President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met Wednesday to discuss the United States' ability to protect Israel from Iraqi chemical and biological weapons.
Aides say that Bush still hasn't decided whether to embark on a military mission against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, but as one official said, "We know Iraq is aggressive ... and accumulates weapons of mass destruction not to store but to use."
The official said it makes sense "to consult with allies about how to reduce the risk they would uniquely confront."
Sharon arrived in Washington on Tuesday for his seventh visit since taking office in March of last year. He spent the day in private consultations and met in the evening with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
During his stay, Sharon also was scheduled to hold talks with Secretary of State Colin Powell, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and congressional leaders, then head for home on Thursday.
Bush has asked Israel to refrain from retaliating against Iraq if it attacks the Jewish nation in response to a U.S. offensive against it. The United States is also hoping to keep a lid on Israeli aggression in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which could excite Arab allies in advance of a possible Iraq offensive.
That seemed like a real possibility earlier this week, according to Israeli sources who said Sharon was planning a new Gaza offensive, but his spokesman Raanan Gissin denied Tuesday that Sharon will be informing the president of any such plan.
"That's total nonsense," Gissin said.
Israeli military officials have said even if there were to be an incursion into Palestinian territory, Sharon would not tell the United States in advance.
Items on Wednesday's agenda included "the need for Israel to take steps ... easing the humanitarian plight of the Palestinian people," including easing travel restrictions and releasing frozen tax revenues, an official told Fox News.
"It is Israel's responsibility to remember the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people, to ease some of the provisions that have been put in place that hinder the humanitarian help for the Palestinian people," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters before the meeting.
Israel's Cabinet Secretary Gideon Starr said that at a Sunday Cabinet meeting security officials warned that lifting restrictions in the Palestinian territories would invite terror attacks. He added that Israel has not given money to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority because it would be setting Israel up for trouble as long as the Authority does not carry out promised financial reforms to prevent cash from being redirected to terrorists.
The money Israel holds is tax collections from Palestinian residents meant for use in the Palestinian territories.
The American official noted Israelis "have legitimate concerns about the money being used" to finance terrorism, but Israel should try working with the Palestinians that are making efforts to cooperate in negotiations with Israel.
"A fresh group of [Palestinian] leaders is starting to emerge and we believe there's a possibility of working with some of them on these issues," the official said.
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Ghassan Khatib said he hoped Bush would try to convince Sharon to resume Israel-Palestinian negotiations.
"They think that they should achieve by force whatever objectives they have and the Americans have to convince them that this is not working at the moment," Khatib said.
"So far we didn't notice at all any American seriousness," he added.
Sharon said in a speech to the Israeli Parliament last week that Palestinians should replace its current leadership, a.k.a. Arafat. If that were done, the Jewish nation would be more amenable to negotiating peace.
"Your terrible suffering is needless," Sharon told the Palestinians during the speech. "Blood is being spilled for nothing. Change the despotic regime that is leading you from failure to failure, from tragedy to tragedy."
"I assess that there is a real possibility that the coming year will be a turning point. I believe that our Palestinian neighbors will themselves reach a moment of change in their attitude toward Israel" and the Sharon government will be "alert to any sign of change ... to make peace."
Elections are scheduled in January for Palestinians to pick their leaders, but Arafat has said that the voting may be delayed if Israeli occupation of West Bank territories continues to hinder its election organizing plans.
Fox News' Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.