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United States: peace meeting between Israeli Prime Minister and President is interrupted by latest suicide bombing.

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JOHN HIGHFIELD: In a statement released in the occupied territories, the Palestinian Authority condemned today’s suicide attack, promising to take deterrent measures against those involved. It did not specify what the measures would be, however.


The murderous event on the outskirts of Tel Aviv occurred as Mr Sharon actually began his discussions earlier in the day with President Bush in the Oval Office at the White House. From Washington, John Shovelan, our correspondent, reports that President Bush and Mr Sharon have called for profound reforms in the Palestinian leadership.


JOHN SHOVELAN: Officials call it a surreal moment. Twenty minutes into their meeting US President George Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, deep in conversation about how to bring peace to the Middle East, when aides slipped each of them a note. It said there’d been an explosion, possibly a bombing, but there was little detail. Then, as they concluded, they received a fuller briefing. US officials say President Bush expressed his disgust at the wanton taking of innocent life. The timing couldn’t have been worse for the President who was pressing Mr Sharon to engage in negotiations with the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.


GEORGE W. BUSH: I’m never going to tell my friend the Prime Minister what to do, on how to handle his business. That’s his choice to make. He’s a democratically elected official.


JOHN SHOVELAN: But in fact that’s exactly what the US administration had been telling Mr Sharon to do. But instead the suicide bombing had strengthened Mr Sharon’s stand, that the Bush administration shouldn’t be pressing him to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority or its chairman.


In a meeting that was overshadowed by another suicide bombing, President Bush and the Prime Minister failed to bridge their differences. Before the meeting US officials were describing Mr Sharon as stubborn and unrelenting, and that he proved to be. He refused to entertain broader political issues, instead focusing on security issues. And while Mr Bush reiterated his support for a Palestinian state ....


GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes, I haven’t changed my position.


JOHN SHOVELAN: ... Mr Sharon said: not so fast.


ARIEL SHARON: I think that it’s still premature to discuss this issue.


JOHN SHOVELAN: The one issue they did appear to agree upon was the reform of the Palestinian Authority. Mr Bush is dispatching his CIA head to the region to create one single Palestinian security force instead of the half dozen shadowy units in existence now.


GEORGE W. BUSH: Unified means that, as opposed to six, seven or eight different security forces under six, seven or eight different commands, there’s one command structure.


UNIDENTIFIED: Palestinian?


GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes, Palestinian.


ARIEL SHARON: It seems that what we have to contemplate now is making every effort that real reform will take place.


JOHN SHOVELAN: But in the end, President Bush wants to accelerate peace talks while Mr Sharon wants incremental advances. Mr Bush wants Mr Sharon to deal with Mr Arafat, but the Israelis refuse to do so. And the Bush administration says Saudi Arabia is a peace partner, while the Israeli government has accused them of supporting terrorism. But President Bush didn’t want to focus on the differences.


GEORGE W. BUSH: And so I would hope that all responsible, Palestinian leaders, understand that reform is in their interests, it’s in the people’s interest. Listen, I deeply hurt when there is a lack of hope for mums and dads, anybody, Palestinian mums and dads, it bothers me. It bothers me to think there are some whose children are so hopeless they’re willing to commit suicide.


JOHN SHOVELAN: For the second time in just a matter of months, the Israeli Prime Minister has cut short a visit to the United States to return home because of a suicide bombing. In December he returned to Israel early when 26 people were killed in a bombing. John Shovelan, Washington.