Daschle: U.S. Remains Foul-Weather Friend to Israel

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle told the largest pro-Israel lobbying group Monday that U.S. support for Israel must be absolute.

"Israel has always had fair-weather friends. What it needs now are foul-weather friends," he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is holding its annual convention in Washington.

"As long as I am majority leader of the United States Senate, we will be a friend to Israel in fair weather and in foul," he said.

Daschle, a possible presidential candidate in 2004, spoke as the Bush administration continued to press Israel to complete its withdrawal from the West Bank.

"The president believes withdrawals need to continue," presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters Monday.

Israel has withdrawn its forces from most West Bank cities, but standoffs continue in at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where Palestinian gunman have taken refuge, and at Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah, where suspects in the October killing of Rehavam Zeevi, Israel's tourism minister, are believed to be.

Israel claims the offensive was needed to stop waves of suicide bombings. Palestinians say Israelis have murdered civilians and damaged chances for a peace agreement.

Secretary of State Colin Powell on Sunday praised Israel for sticking to the schedule it had given him for withdrawing from the West Bank, but says the Middle East crisis won't end until soldiers are back in their garrisons and normal life resumes in Palestinian cities.

"I'm not completely satisfied. I would like to see the withdrawal continue until there is no question about it," Powell said Sunday.

Both sides' supporters were planning rallies near the lobbying group's conference in the Washington Hilton. Washington police were closing off parts of Connecticut Avenue, one of the city's main thoroughfares, in anticipation of the protests.

Police Chief Charles Ramsey said police were separating the two groups of protesters. "We don't want anybody getting hurt here."

At the convention Sunday, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres defended the West Bank offensive, saying his nation's troops had to pursue Palestinian terrorists because Arafat wouldn't.

Military action "was not our choice, but our lack of choice," Peres told the 3,000 delegates. "We did it and it's over."

Peres denied Palestinian claims of massacres. At Jenin, site of some of the worst fighting, he said only three of the 50 Palestinians killed were civilians and that 23 Israeli soldiers died.

"The soldiers got orders to respect civilian life and every civilian person and they did so," Peres said.

President Bush takes a direct role in the Middle East this week, meeting Thursday at his Texas ranch with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. He is the author of a plan to offer recognition of Israel in exchange for return of Arab lands seized in the 1967 war.

Abdullah's foreign policy adviser, Adel Al-Jubeir, said the Saudi leader will tell Bush that "America must be engaged, America must restrain Sharon, America must put the peace process back in its proper track."

Peres said the Saudi proposal is positive "if you don't look at the details, but you look at the general perception." But he noted it will be difficult to reach the goals of the plan because Israel can't negotiate directly with Saudi Arabia, which has no diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

"When it comes to Saudi Arabia, we can see the light, but we can't find the tunnel," the foreign minister said.