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Sharon pins Middle East violence on Arafat

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday expressed willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians, but only after they end violence that he blamed personally on Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat.

Speaking on the eve of his first meeting with President Bush, Sharon said, "Arafat must understand, first and foremost, that he will gain nothing from violence. Israel will not negotiate while Israeli civilians and soldiers are under fire."

Sharon laid out a rough draft of his peace policy in an address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He said Israel would lift restrictions on the Palestinians in return for an end to the violence. Once the fighting has stopped, he said, Israel would restart suspended negotiations toward an interim agreement with the Palestinians.

Sharon offered "contiguity," suggesting Israel would make efforts to link together some Palestinian territories now separated by Israeli-controlled areas, and "a better economic future" for the Palestinians. In return, Israel demanded "security zones" for protection, Sharon said, but he did not provide details.

"I believe that Israel can reach an agreement with the Palestinians, and I will make every effort to reach such an agreement," Sharon said. But he did not offer the Palestinians a permanent peace like that sought by his predecessor, Ehud Barak.

The Israeli prime minister was greeted with raucous applause. The audience included Cabinet members and many members of Congress, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. Outside the Washington hotel where Sharon spoke, several hundred people demonstrated in support of the Palestinians, alongside a smaller number of Sharon supporters.

Sharon blamed Arafat for the violence that has wracked Israel and the occupied territories since September.

"Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority are returning to the belief that they can defeat Israel by means of armed struggle," he said.

Sharon's point of view appeared already to be accepted by the new Bush administration, according to statements made by Secretary of State Colin Powell in a speech Monday morning to AIPAC.

"Leaders have the responsibility to denounce violence, strip it of its legitimacy, stop it. Violence is a dead end," Powell said in an oblique reference to Arafat, who has not publicly called for an end to the attacks.

Powell also criticized Arab governments for withdrawing their ambassadors from Tel Aviv. "These states should be voices of moderation," he said.

Meeting with Sharon later, Powell stressed the need to ease economic pressure on the Palestinians and supported the idea of direct discussions with the Palestinians to rebuild confidence, the Associated Press reported.

Sharon's office said Bush national security adviser Condoleezza Rice assured the prime minister that the United States will urge Arafat to halt Palestinian violence. Sharon meets today with Bush in the White House.

Meanwhile Monday, Palestinian violence escalated and Israel stepped up its response.

Palestinian gunmen killed Baruch Cohen, 59, a Jewish settler in the West Bank who was driving to work in Jerusalem when his car was sprayed with bullets and ran into a truck.

Israel immediately reimposed a security blockade on the Bethlehem area that had been lifted just days earlier.

An army spokesman said the gunmen who shot Cohen crossed a Palestinian Authority security checkpoint and fled into Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem.

The body of another man, Yitzhak Karbatov, was found in northern Israel on Monday, and Israeli officials said 60 automatic rifles were stolen from the armory of a commune where Karbatov was head of security.

There were reports that authorities were investigating whether Palestinians may have forced Karbatov to open the armory and then killed him.