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What Do Sharon and Bush Hope to Accomplish?; Explosion Rocks Town Near Tel Aviv; Understanding Israeli Politics

Aired May 7, 2002 - 16:00   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, HOST OF INSIDE POLITICS: I'm Judy Woodruff in Washington. President Bush is meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon very close to where I am, and that is our focus this hour.

JOHN KING, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I'm John King at the White House. I will have the latest on those talks and a look at what both sides hope to accomplish.

CANDY CROWLEY, SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I'm Candy Crowley in Washington with story of two men, Bush and Sharon, and the pressure they feel as they face one another.

BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I'm Bill Schneider in Washington. To understand relations between U.S. presidents and Israeli prime ministers, it helps to understand Israeli politics.

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, this is INSIDE POLITICS with Judy Woodruff.

WOODRUFF: Thank you for joining us. The White House is warning not to look for a magic moment in the talks now under way between President Bush and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.

But there has been some movement in the Middle East. In Israel, tanks were seen pulling back from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem today, after Israel an the Palestinians agreed to a deal to end the five-week standoff there.

However, some logistical problems remain. The Italian government apparently has not agreed to take 13 Palestinians to be exiled because Israel says they are quote, senior terrorists.

Back here in Washington, Ariel Sharon is laying out his vision of Middle East peace for President Bush. By all accounts, the two men do not see eye to eye when it comes to Yasser Arafat's role in the process. Our senior White House correspondent John King has an update on the talks. John, what do we know at this point?

KING: Well, Judy, we know those talks under way in the Oval Office and we know Prime Minister Sharon arrived here a short time ago. This is his fifth meeting with President Bush. We will hear from both men later this hour. The White House going into this meeting hoping to make some progress on the question you just mentioned, Yasser Arafat. The prime minister comes here saying he has more evidence that Mr. Arafat is a terrorist, and that he wants a change in the leadership of the Palestinian Authority before he is prepared to go forward with any discussion of an independent Palestinian state.

Mr. Sharon will promise some progress in the interim, but he is not ready go into any negotiations with Mr. Arafat. The White House position is that has no choice but to deal with the Arafat government. Most of all the White House would like Mr. Sharon to quiet his public criticism of Mr. Arafat, so that the United States, Israel, the foreign ministers from the Arab countries could try make some progress over the next several weeks and several months before it would ever get to the point where you would need Arafat and Sharon to have a meeting or to have a deal.

That is what the White House wants most. We will hear from both men later this hour. A very delicate moment for the president as he tries to maintain the friendship with Israel but also move it off some differences with the United States right now.

WOODRUFF: John, I know you are talking with people on all sides of this conflict. What are they saying? What do you believe the stakes are for everyone involved?

KING: Well, remember, Prime Minister Sharon under a great deal of pressure back home. They believe -- his own party believes he bowed to U.S. pressure in lifting the siege on Ramallah, letting Mr. Arafat out to roam about. So Prime Minister Sharon here to show that he will not bow to U.S. pressure, that he wants to work with President Bush but will not be dictated to by President Bush, if you will. President Bush, on the other hand, trying to prove to the Arab world that he is an honest broker and that he can move Mr. Sharon along in this process.

The Arab countries want immediate, comprehensive peace negotiations. Most here at the White House believe that is unrealistic, that there is not enough trust, a total lack of trust at the moment to proceed that way.

But if Mr. Bush is to go back to the Arabs and credibly say, you are wrong, we can't go for the whole peace deal right now, he believes they must show some progress with Israel. That is what the president hopes to emerge, if not directly from this meeting, then certainly in the very near future.

WOODRUFF: All right. John King at the White House. And I know you will be watching this meeting for us. Thank you, John.

Well, President Bush before today has called Ariel Sharon a man of peace. Sharon has praised Mr. Bush for what he calls his courageous leadership against terrorism. They come together today with different backgrounds and different political pressures, as John just mentioned. Here now our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley.


CROWLEY (voice over): The president and the prime minister came to office within three months of each other. They are a Jew and a Christian, nearly a generation apart in age. Light years separate their life experience.

Son of a farmer, Ariel Sharon joined a paramilitary group when he was 14 and later became one of Israel's premier warriors.

Son of a Texas oil man and politician, George Bush spent most of his teenage years in elite eastern schools, flew planes for the Texas Air National Guard, and went into private business.

Both became politicians in their mid forties. Now they seek a single solution to a problem they come to from different places.

RICHARD MURPHY, MIDDLE EAST COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: Israel, as Sharon says, sees itself fighting for the survival of the Jewish people, existence of the Jewish state. Bush has to take into account many different strategic interests in the region.

CROWLEY: The differences have shown when the post-9/11 Bush Administration seemed to pressure Israel for conciliation while seeking Arab and Islamic help for the war on terror, the prime minister seethes.

ARIEL SHARON, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Do not try to appease the Arabs at our expense. It is unacceptable to us.

CROWLEY: When Israel showed no sign it was listening to the Bush Administration's call to get out of the West Bank, the president grew stony.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: First of all, I meant what I said to the prime minister of Israel. I expect there to be withdraw without delay.

CROWLEY: Imagine how they talk to each other in private. But say this at least, the president and the prime minister, both stubborn men, speak the same language.

MURPHY: Both are known for being very direct, very frank and blunt in their stating their position. So that's helped them get along together so far.

CROWLEY: But the core connection between these two is not style but ideology. Washington and Jerusalem are different vantage points but the internal view of George Bush and Ariel Sharon is remarkably similar. Both see the terrorism battle as good versus evil. Both are devoted, committed conservatives, facing similar at-home political dynamics.

MURPHY: You could say that both men, in their own systems, represent the right wing of their political systems. And that they have in their countries, individuals and factions to the right of them. So each is trying to secure his position through appealing to the center. The center in Israeli politics, the center in American politics.


CROWLEY: And to the list of commonalities, add this; neither the president nor the prime minister trust the chairman of the PLO, Yasser Arafat, though they differ on what that should mean to negotiations. In the end, George Bush and Ariel Sharon are never going to be best friends, but they need each other a lot and understand each other well. International relationships have thrived on a lot less -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: All right. Candy Crowley reporting here in Washington.

And now to the man who is a source of disagreement between the president and the prime minister, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. CNN's Mike Hannah reports from Jerusalem.


MIKE HANNAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): While Ariel Sharon is in Washington, Yasser Arafat remains in the West Bank city of Ramallah, meeting here with U.N. envoy Terry Larson. Arafat still to meet President Bush, and although he is now free to travel, a White House invitation likely to remain elusive. The most senior official he has yet met in the Bush Administration is Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has consistently resisted Sharon's insistence that Arafat be excluded from the negotiation process.

The Israeli prime minister has refused to meet Yasser Arafat, at one stage describing the Palestinian leader as irrelevant. Then after a suicide bomb attack at the beginning of the traditional Jewish Passover holiday, as Ariel Sharon prepared to launch a massive military offensive, he dropped the irrelevant tag for one of enemy.

SHARON: Chairman Arafat is an enemy because he decided about strategy of terror and formed the coalition of terror.

HANNAH: Some within the Israeli cabinets still insist that Arafat can and must be a partner in negotiations, provided he's seen to crack down on terror, which is also a primary demand from the Bush Administration.

DAVID LANDAU, POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Ariel Sharon believes he won't, that Arafat will not take that last chance, will do nothing to exercise authority over the militants in his own factions. And if he fails, as Ariel Sharon believes he will fail, then again, Sharon's position vis-a-vis the American administration will be enhanced and strengthened.

HANNAH: Some on the Israeli right accuse Sharon of bowing to U.S. pressure in allowing Arafat to out of his lengthy confinement in Ramallah. But now it's argued that Sharon had good reason to allow his enemy to have complete freedom of action. (on camera): Sharon, perhaps biding his time, perhaps believing the critical factor in persuading the Bush Administration to isolate Arafat could be action or non-action of the Palestinian leader himself. Mike Hannah, CNN, Jerusalem.


WOODRUFF: All of the key figures in the Middle East crisis are acutely aware of the domestic pressures they face. Our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, looks at the influence of Israeli politics on the Jewish state's relationship with the United States over the years.


SCHNEIDER: Israeli prime ministers have come from two political parties, Labor and Likud. Which party is in power in Israel makes a lot of difference for U.S.-Israel relations.

(voice-over): The Labor tradition is one of socialism and egalitarianism, the Israel of the kibbutz. Likud has a tradition of nationalism and military power, the Israel of the settlements. President Jimmy Carter found Likud prime minister Menachem Begin a tough customer.

MENACHEM BEGIN, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Nobody should preach to us ethics, nobody.

SCHNEIDER: The main issue of contention -- settlements. Likud insists that Jews have the right to live anywhere in historic Palestine. The U.S. takes a different view.

JIMMY CARTER, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I've always thought that the settlements were both illegal and also an obstacle to peace.

SCHNEIDER: President Reagan was quick to respond when Begin's government annexed the Golan Heights.

RONALD REAGAN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We do deplore this unilateral action by Israel, which has increased the difficulty of seeking peace in the Middle East.

SCHNEIDER: Disagreement over Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's settlement policy led President George Bush to ask Congress to delay considering Israel's request for loan guarantees. Israel's supporters deeply resented Bush's caustic depiction of his critics.

GEORGE H. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I was -- heard today there was something like a thousand lobbyists on the hill working the other side of the question. We got one lonely little guy down here doing it.

SCHNEIDER: President Bill Clinton had a frosty relationship with Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The problem -- settlements. Clinton had a much warmer relationship with Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Israelis were deeply touched by Clinton's remarks after Rabin was assassinated.

BILL CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Because words cannot express my true feelings, let me just say shalom haver. Good- bye, friend.

SCHNEIDER: In Israel's 1999 election, the Clinton Administration openly favored Labor candidate Ehud Barak, who ultimately won. Did the settlement issue disappear under a Labor prime minister? No. It just didn't get any worse.

EHUD BARAK, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: I'm not going to build new ones. I'm not going to dismantle any one of them.

SCHNEIDER (on camera): For the U.S. the essence of the peace process is land for peace. That is why the U.S. always has problems with the Likud government. The commitment of the Likud, more than anything else, is to the land.

Bill Schneider, CNN, Washington.


WOODRUFF: And we will have much more ahead on the Middle East crisis and today's talks between President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon.

Georgetown University students of different backgrounds shared their views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the prospects for peace.

Our Ron Brownstein considers the evolution of Mr. Bush's Mideast outlook from his days on the campaign trail and during his tenure as commander-in-chief.

And we have seen the price of violence in the Middle East. But what would be the price of peace?


WOODRUFF: Earlier today I talked about the Mideast crisis with a group of students at Washington's Georgetown University. The students represent campus Arab and Israeli groups, Jewish and Muslim student organizations. They all share a strong desire for peace, but after that their views diverge, reflecting their backgrounds.

I started by asking if one side or the other is to blame for the current crisis.

MARIA MOSER, YOUTH ARAB LEADERSHIP ALLIANCE: I think for the loss of any one life, it's obviously easy to place blame for the Israeli army or a suicide bomber. But I think if you look at the situation, have you have an occupation that began in 1967, and the first suicide bombing happened in 1994. So I think the situation has been a terrible indignity and oppressive measure towards the Palestinian people, and now it is resulting in loss of life on both sides. SALOMON KALACH ZAGA, GEORGETOWN ISRAEL ALLIANCE: They are both responsible, but somehow there is a different moral standing, moral ground.

I agree there has to be a settlement to solve the situation so that Israel can pull out and have secure borders and the Palestinians can have a state. But I wouldn't compare uprooting terrorism against terrorism itself.

JASON GOLD, JEWISH STUDENT ASSOCIATION: They are wasting their time by blaming each other for who is responsible when basically what we need to look -- what we need to do is put our pasts behind us and look what we can do now.

WOODRUFF: The administration believes it has to deal with Yasser Arafat despite the fact that the Israelis are saying, don't deal with him, he is a terrorist. Is the Bush Administration basically pursuing the right course?

JAWAD ISSA, YOUTH ARAB LEADERSHIP ALLIANCE: I don't think the current American administration is doing a particularly good job. Siding with one side or the other in the conflict upsets the balance, especially when you are negotiating.

WOODRUFF: And you are saying that is what they have done?

ISSA: This is what they are doing. I mean, refusing to meet with Arafat -- and I am Palestinian and I don't think Arafat is particularly the best leader, but he is the one we have right now. And being a terrorist or not, does not mean that you cannot make peace. Take Menachem Begin, for example. Ariel Sharon, they were both leaders of paramilitary groups that massacred villages. And now they are trying to work for peace. And this applies also for Arafat.

WOODRUFF: Do you believe a solution is possible with these two leaders, some would call them aging, you know, generals. They both have been involved in war on both sides. Or is it going to take a new generation, the next generation for peace to be found?

MOSER: I always hope for peace. I think the leaders ultimately have to represent the will of the people. And that it is going to be the desires of the Israeli people and the Palestinian people for peace that can galvanize a settlement to be reached, that can say we are tired of this conflict and we need to reach a peaceful solution and we need to reach it now. I think that it is going to have to involve some kind of a summit. It is going to have to involve the leaders because you can't have a solely grass roots peace plan.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't like to compare Arafat and Sharon. has proved he was a good general. The allegations he has, they are not real. And he has dismantled settlements. If there is a person that would dismantle settlements for peace, it is Sharon. In terms of Arafat, what concerns me is that it is not that he was a terrorist, he still is a terrorist.

WOODRUFF: Do you believe it is possible for these two leaders?

BALTI: I don't believe we can wait for the next generation in order to have peace, because that just means more violence and more death. So given that they are both in power right now, I think that we have to find a way of having those two sit down together with international observers and trying to work out a peaceful solution to the Middle East.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The solution is there. What needs to happen is that more effort should be put. And it is worth trying. Arafat has worked and has agreed to have a peace process. It is based on Palestinian people's mentality that peace is the only solution, and so it is with the Israeli people, I assume, that they also believe peace is the only way.

The target, I think, should not be to focus on the leaders so much but to try and get the nations as well involved in it.


WOODRUFF: Part of my discussion today at Georgetown University with some students there. We want to tell about some breaking news out of Israel.

The Associated Press is reporting that there has been an explosion at a reception hall south of Tel Aviv. That is all the information we can give you right now. We are attempting at CNN to get more information this moment. As soon as we do, we will share that with you. All we can tell you again at this moment, AP reporting an explosion at a reception hall south of Tel Aviv. As soon as we have anything more, we will share it with you.

We will have more on the Middle East and today's White House meeting coming up next in the news cycle. Plus, Ron Brownstein on political strategy and the evolution of a president.


WOODRUFF: As we told you just before the break, there is news of an explosion in Israel at a reception hall just south of Tel Aviv. For the latest, from Israel, let's go to my colleague Wolf Blitzer. He is there in Jerusalem -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, HOST WOLF BLITZER REPORTS: Judy, this is what we know right now: We spoke with the spokesman from Israel police who does confirm there was an explosion in Rishon Letzion, which is a town just south of Tel Aviv along the coast line, the Mediterranean coast line.

The police spokesman saying it occurred at what is described as a reception hall, banquet hall, where some sort of event was going on. We are also told by the police spokesman that there are injuries. Now, Israel radio is going much further, saying there are lots of injuries, and apparently -- once again, apparently -- Israel radio saying this appears to be a terrorist incident. We don't have that independently confirmed yet. We do have independently confirmed there are injuries at this reception hall in Rishon Letzion. We are told that it happened shortly after 11:00 p.m. local time, which is shortly after 4 p.m. on the East coast. That the incident did occur in an industrial area where this banquet hall or reception hall was located in Rishon Letzion in Israel just south of Tel Aviv.

We are also told by Israel radio that one of the floors in that building where that reception was going on, some sort of event going on there, one of the floors may have collapsed during the explosion in Rishon Letzion. We are attempting to get obviously more information. We have people heading towards that way. Israel radio and Israel television have now broken into their regular programming and are going live to Rishon Letzion for the late breaking developments.

Obviously it comes, Judy, as President Bush is continuing his meeting with Prime Minister Sharon in Washington. It is much too early to speculate whether or not this incident, if in fact, and this is a big if at this point, if in fact it is a terrorist incident has anything do with the meeting in Washington.

Once again, we have confirmed an explosion at a banquet hall in Rishon Letzion, with injuries among those attending the event there -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Wolf, as you say, we are not able to confirm if this is a terrorist incident. But looking back at history, the last few days and weeks, it has been some days since there has been a terrorist incident in Israel. The country has been free for what, a number of days.

BLITZER: It's been since April 12th. I know that, because that was the date I arrived here in Jerusalem last month. I know that because that was the date I arrived here in Jerusalem last month. April 12, right here in Jerusalem at the central place, the Machaneyuhuda (ph) marketplace, in Jerusalem was the last suicide bombing incident. A young Palestinian woman involved in that incident, six Israelis killed, more than 80 injured, in the open air market incident on April 12.

That's the last incident of that kind. We don't know, Judy, as I have been trying to stress, we don't know if this incident in Rishon Letzion in that banquet hall is in fact terrorism perhaps some other kind of explosion. Israel radio is saying apparently, apparently, some sort of terrorist incident. They have dispatched people to the scene. We have dispatched people to the scene. We are getting more information as we speak. Right now Judy, from Israel police, the spokesman telling us only so far there has been an explosion and that there are injuries.

WOODRUFF: Obviously, Wolf, there is never a good time for something like this. These incidents when they happen, they are horrible but the timing particularly now with the meeting, going on literally as you and I are talking and the White House from where we are standing between President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

BLITZER: And everyone here in Israel, they were all watching very closely, Israel television broadcasting extensively details of the prime minister's visit to Washington. His meeting earlier in the day with the White House national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, gearing up for his meetings after the meeting with the president, with the vice president, Dick Cheney, with members of the house and the Senate.

But right now, the focus of attention here in Israel is on this explosion in Rishon Letzion, a small town just south of Tel Aviv at a banquet hall there. Once again there are injuries. Israel radio saying lots of injuries. We don't have that independently confirmed, but the state radio, Voice of Israel is saying lots of injuries in this reception hall, this banquet reception hall in Rishon Letzion, if it is in fact terrorism, that is a big if...

Byline: Ron Brownstein, Jonathan Karl, Jeff Greenfield,

banquet reception hall in Rishon Letzion. If it is in fact terrorism -- and that's a big if right now -- if it is in fact terrorism, the presumption would be, of course, that it was designed to coincide perhaps with the meeting that the prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, is having with the president of the United States at the White House even as we speak right now.

But all of that, of course, is speculative at this nature, at this point.

WOODRUFF: And, Wolf, as we talk with you, I want to bring in CNN contributor, "Los Angeles Times" reporter Ron Brownstein, who has been listening to you.

Ron, as we have been stressing, we don't know whether this is a terrorist incident or not. But if it is, clearly, not a good effect on these meetings under way at the White House.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: No. Absolutely, Judy. If it is terrorism, certainly it is going to strengthen the argument of those in Israel who believe in Mr. Sharon's Likud Party that only military force can provide any measure of security for Israel.

I'm sure the argument is going to be made, if this is terrorism, that it comes as Israel has been under pressure and in fact has been withdrawing its forces from the West Bank. And, again, it will sort of reinforce the hard-liners. That is the logic of terror. It reinforces the most extremist or the hardest-line forces on each side of the argument. And it will make it more complicated for President Bush as he tries to move a somewhat reluctant Prime Minister Sharon towards a peace process.

WOODRUFF: And, Ron, we know that this is a president who, early on the administration, did not make the Middle East a priority. He has now made it much greater a priority. And he is now staking much of his political and even diplomatic reputation on getting something done in the Middle East.

BROWNSTEIN: And it has been made for him a priority, whether he wanted to make it or not.

Clearly, I think in two ways, they have moved very far from where they started. One is when they came in and I think they viewed a heavy U.S. involvement as volitional, optional, something that Bill Clinton did because he wanted to do, as a piece of his peacemaking in Northern Ireland or Bosnia. What they have come to learn, I think, is that this really isn't an optional part of the president's job. It's in the national interests of the United States to prevent the situation there from deteriorating totally out of control.

Secondly, I think, Judy, they've learned that there's a value just in process, in having the two sides talking to each other. Last year, Colin Powell said at one point he didn't want to chat just for the sake of chatting. I think what they have learned very clearly is that, if you are not chatting, if you don't have the two sides talking to each other, you are in effect losing ground, that you have to have some kind of constraint.

And one way to impose some kind of constraint is to bring the two sides into a peace process, even if you're not sure it can lead to an ultimate result. And I think that's where they are still ambivalent about whether they think you can really envision any point at which Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat -- certainly in the light of the news that we see all the time, perhaps even today -- can ultimately reach an agreement.

It may be that you never can get to that point. But there can still be value in having them and other players involved in a peace negotiation.

WOODRUFF: All right, Ron Brownstein of "The Los Angeles Times" with us, also Wolf Blitzer.

And, Wolf, we'll be coming back to you momentarily. As we've been telling our audience, reports just in the last few minutes of an explosion at a reception hall in a town just south of Tel Aviv, the town of Rishon Letzion. There are reports of injuries, but CNN is still working on confirming that, obviously working very hard to confirm if this is a terrorist incident. We'll continue to monitor that very closely. We're also monitoring the meeting under way still in the White House right now between President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Our coverage continues. INSIDE POLITICS will be right back.


WOODRUFF: As we keep a close watch on the White House not far behind me, where President Bush is meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, news comes from Israel of what could be a terrorist attack.

All we know so far: an explosion at a reception hall south of Tel Aviv in the town of Rishon Letzion. There are some reports on Israeli radio of injuries, a number of injuries. But, at this point, CNN is not able to confirm anything other than the fact there has been an explosion. There was some sort of an event going on. It is late in the evening, after 11:00 at night in Israel. And, as soon as we are able to bring you more information about that, we will.

Meantime, we do continue to watch for this meeting at the White House to break up. After he leaves the White House, Israel's Prime Minister Sharon will head to Capitol Hill for a meeting with the House leadership and a select group of senators.

For a preview of all of that, let's turn to CNN's congressional correspondent Jonathan Karl.

Jon, what sort of reception should the prime minister expect?

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly this is going to be an extremely receptive audience for his general message of thanks to the Congress for its support.

After all, this was a Congress that passed overwhelmingly those pro-Israel resolutions in the House and the Senate just last week. And, at these meetings of select congressional leaders in the House and the Senate, everybody in attendance, with the possible exception of Robert Byrd, who was invited but not expected to attend, but everybody in attendance is going to be somebody who voted in favor of these unequivocal shows of support for Israel.

And now, as far as Sharon's message about Arafat being a terrorist and the evidence that he's bringing over on that, again, a very receptive audience -- obviously, up here, you have this resolution now moving its way through the Congress by Mitch McConnell, the Republican, and Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat, that would declare Arafat a terrorist and impose immediate sanctions on the Palestinian Authority. McConnell has agreed to hold off on that at the White House request. But they already have 20 co-sponsors without going out and trying to gather support for this. And they are expected to move forward on the House -- Roy Blunt, the Republican, Gary Ackerman, the Democrat, expected to move a measure in the House possibly as soon as next week that would be identical to McConnell's -- so, clearly, here a receptive audience.

But, Judy, that said, there's also very much the sentiment up here that is supportive of the president, or at least not second- guessing the president when he is asking Sharon to deal with Arafat, as we suspect he's doing at that meeting at the White House.

To give you an example, Mitch McConnell -- who, again, wants to declare Arafat a terrorist with his bill -- said -- quote -- "If I were president, I would deal with the guy," meaning Arafat, "because I don't think you have any choice" -- so, not a lot of second-guessing up here, even though Sharon will get a very receptive audience -- Judy

WOODRUFF: Jon, we know there's some disagreement among members of Congress about the question of how much aid the U.S. should be giving Israel in the future. Is that expected to come up in these meetings with Prime Minister Sharon?

KARL: Well, Sharon is not expected to come up and make the case for that, but that is very much the topic of discussion up here on Capitol Hill right now.

It's the $200 million that Israel would like to get in military aid from the Congress that the White House originally asked for, but has now asked the Congress to hold off on. They don't want to send a message, as they're trying to play a broker, an honest broker between the Palestinians and the Israelis, of sending $200 million in military aid to Israel at this very time.

So, the general assumption is that Congress will not move immediately on that money. But, Judy, in both those resolutions in the House and the Senate that passed last week in support of Israel, the underlying message was that the Congress would support Israel, not merely with words, but also with money, money to support their own homeland defense.

So, that's expected to move. It is just a question of how soon.

WOODRUFF: All right, Jon Karl, reporting from the Capitol -- thank you, Jon.

Well, as you know, Mideast peace has been a common, but elusive goal for numerous American presidents.

CNN's Jeff Greenfield has some thoughts on what usually must happen to achieve real progress on the path to peace.


JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SR. ANALYST: Headline: President meets with Israeli leader amid Mideast crisis. We haven't seen that story more than 300 or 400 times in the last half-century.

So, let's look past the latest photo-op and diplomatic un-speak and look at those moments when the United States has, with its deeds, actually changed events in the Middle East.

(voice-over): It began at the very beginning. In May 1948, Israel declared itself a sovereign nation. Would the United States recognize it? Secretary of State George Marshall urged President Truman not to do it. It might endanger the Arab oil supply, he said.

But Truman did it anyway, a key gesture of support for Israel and one that angered Israel's Arab adversaries. But eight years later, the U.S. showed its support was not unconditional. In October 1956, Israel, Britain and France planned a military strike to retake the Suez Canal back from Egypt. President Eisenhower blocked that plan and made the U.S. a permanent player in the Middle East chess game.

America's boldest and perhaps most dangerous ploy came in October of 1973 in the midst of the Israeli-Egyptian Yom Kippur War. When the Soviet Union, a strong Arab ally, threatened to send its troops in to enforce a cease-fire, President Nixon said no to that idea and put U.S. forces on worldwide nuclear alert, the tensest moment in the Cold War since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

There were also, of course, moments that promised peace. In September 1978, President Carter brought Israel's Begin and Egypt's Sadat to Camp David for 16 days of talks that ended with a treaty. In 1988, the U.S. agreed to deal with the PLO after Yasser Arafat formally recognized Israel's right to exist. Five years later, President Clinton brought Arafat and Israel's Yitzhak Rabin to the White House lawn to sign the Oslo peace accords.


WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I have to set a good example.


GREENFIELD: But the last major U.S. initiative, Clinton's Camp David meetings in 2000 with Arafat and Israeli's Ehud Barak, failed to hammer out a comprehensive, detailed agreement.

(on camera): So, how to tell if today's meetings -- and tomorrow's and tomorrow's and tomorrow's -- really signal something significant? It may be that, for now, the answer does not really lie with the United States at all. For all of this nation's vaunted power, it is hard to see how anything really changes unless the Mideast players themselves decide to change.

Jeff Greenfield, CNN, New York.


WOODRUFF: And just to update you on the situation in Israel: while President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon meeting here in Washington, reports from Israel of an explosion at a reception hall south of Tel Aviv.

We're now learning that at least 30 people have been injured. Others are trapped in the wreckage of the building. There are reports that the ceiling in the building collapsed -- and Israeli radio, at this point, reporting they do not know the cause of it -- speculation, of course, that this is a terrorist attack, but, again, no confirmation of that.

CNN working to get cameras to the area, and as soon as we have more information than we're able to give you now, we'll bring it to you immediately.

INSIDE POLITICS continues after this.


WOODRUFF: As we continue to watch the White House, the meeting under way still between President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Sharon, reports from Israel of an explosion at a reception hall south of Tel Aviv -- at least 30 people reported injured. A ceiling reportedly collapsed, a number of others reportedly trapped in the wreckage.

For the very latest, let's go to my colleague, Wolf Blitzer. He is in Jerusalem -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Judy, we're now told from ambulance services here in Israel that at least 40 people are injured and others are still trapped in this three-story building in what's called the new industrial area of Rishon Letzion, a town just south of Tel Aviv.

It's described as a banquet hall or a reception hall. One description police give us is perhaps a dancing club. Some sort of event was going on shortly after 11:00 p.m. local time. That's right after 4:00 p.m. on the East Coast of the United States, when this explosion occurred.

Now, Israel radio and Israel television saying it's apparently, apparently, a terrorist incident -- police are not yet describing it as a terrorist incident. Of course, that's a supposition in this part of the world when something like that obviously goes on. It's automatic -- but police so far avoiding saying it's a terrorist incident, saying that they're still checking it out. They have people on the scene, obviously.

We have our own Jerrold Kessel, our longtime Jerusalem correspondent. He's on the way to Rishon Letzion with a crew right now to try to find out precisely what's going on -- but at least 40 people now believed to be injured in this collapse, this explosion of this three-story club or reception hall in Rishon Letzion. More information, obviously, will have to be made available.

One additional note: Ambulances are on the way. And other ambulances are being brought into service. Israel television -- one report on Israel television is saying tens of people are now injured, another saying at least 40 are injured. We have that independently confirmed, at least 40 injured, based on reports we're getting from various ambulance services that are rushing to the scene of this explosion in Rishon Letzion -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Wolf, you reported earlier that there had not been another terrorist incident since April the 12th in Israel. Even so, we know that the people in that country take special precautions any time they come together for any sort of a social event or business meeting. So, we have to assume there were some sort of security measures taken here as well.

BLITZER: I have to tell you, Judy, throughout Israel -- and I've been here now, obviously, many times, but I was here three weeks ago. I'm back now.

Every place you go within Israel, whether here in Jerusalem, where I am, or in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Netanya, Rishon Letzion, a major city just south of Tel Aviv, there is strong security. There are armed security guards almost everywhere you go. Whether you go to a coffee shop, you go to a mall, you go to a department store -- or a drug store, for that matter -- you see armed security guards. And I would have to assume that, at that event, whatever was going on at this reception hall in Rishon Letzion, there was security as well.

But, once again, we are not yet confirming that this was a terrorist incident. We're only reporting what Israel television, Israel radio is saying, apparently a terrorist incident. Police -- and we've just gotten off the phone with a spokesman for the Israeli police -- saying they are not prepared to say that at this point. They're investigating the cause of this explosion.

The widespread assumption, though, given the jittery nerves under way throughout Israel right now, the widespread assumption, automatically, when this kind of situation develops is to assume that it is terrorism. And, as you know, Judy, it's occurring just as President Bush is meeting, continuing his meeting with Prime Minister Sharon at the White House in Washington -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Indeed -- Wolf Blitzer reporting live for us from Jerusalem.

And, Wolf, I know we will be coming back to you momentarily, especially if there are new developments in that story about the explosion south of Tel Aviv.

We will take a short break. We will be back with more coverage in a moment.


WOODRUFF: Just about an hour and five minutes ago, President Bush sat down for an important meeting at the White House not far from where I'm standing with Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon. We're told at this moment the meeting is still under way. They're expected to bring in news cameras at the end of the meeting. That has not happened yet. We will bring you an update as soon as we know more on the meeting.

Meantime, the news out of Israel not good, news that there has been an explosion at a reception hall, a banquet hall south of Tel Aviv in the town of Rishon Letzion at this hour -- at least 30 people injured -- our Wolf Blitzer reporting moments ago as many as 40 injured. Perhaps a ceiling has collapsed.

Wolf Blitzer is back with me now. Wolf is in Jerusalem.

And, Wolf, still trying to determine whether this is the work of a terrorist or not.

BLITZER: Well, just a few seconds ago, Judy, Israel radio is reporting, quoting one report, one source, police source as saying that, yes, this is a suicide bombing. That's one report on Israel radio -- Israel radio and Israel television now reporting that there are deaths in this incident, in this event at what is now being described by Israel television as a billiard hall, an area where young people get together -- at least 40 injured in this explosion.

It has been an explosion. We have that confirmed from police -- Israel radio now saying that it's not only a terrorist incident, but apparently, according to this one report, a suicide bombing -- Israel television, both channels here in Israel saying that there are deaths, unclear how many. We do know that a large number of ambulances now are either already at this hall in what's called the new industrialized area of Rishon Letzion or are on the way -- at least, as I said earlier, Judy, 40 injured.

And there are deaths in this event, apparently, apparently, a terrorist incident -- Israel radio quoting one police report, one eyewitness as saying a suicide bombing. We're obviously going to get more information, Judy. Our Jerrold Kessel is now on the scene, heading to Rishon Letzion. And we'll get the latest once he gets there.

But it does appear, appear, at this point, Judy, to be terrorism.

WOODRUFF: All right, Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Jerusalem.

And Wolf will have much more on this story at 5:00 Eastern on "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS."

Again, we are watching the White House closely, not far from where I am, the meeting still under way at this hour between President Bush and Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

We'll be right back.


WOODRUFF: An explosion in Israel: We are just getting these pictures in from Israeli television. This is a reception hall, the area around a reception hall or billiard hall south of Tel Aviv in the industrial town of Rishon Letzion, again, south of Tel Aviv.

Just about 30 minutes ago, we received reports of an explosion inside this building. We have been reporting as many as 30 people were injured, Israeli radio and some police sources saying there appear to have been some deaths. We don't have any more information at this hour.

We know that a ceiling was reported to have been collapsed in this explosion. And, as our Wolf Blitzer told us just a couple minutes ago, there has been one report, one police source who is saying that this has been a suicide bombing. But, again, there is only one source. We are not able to confirm that at this hour, although, clearly, when something like this happens in Israel, the worst assumption has too often proved to be correct. And that is that it is the work of a terrorist.

Again, these pictures coming in from Israeli TV in this area just south of Tel Aviv, an industrialized area, the coastal town of Rishon Letzion, in a building described as a banquet hall or a billiard hall, where a number of young people were gathered together, at least 40 people injured and apparently some deaths.

CNN is trying to -- we'll keep you up to date on this. And "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS" comes up in just a moment. And there will be the latest there.

For now, I'm Judy Woodruff in Washington.


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