Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was on his way back to Israel on Thursday after a three-day visit to the U.S., in which he appeared to gain U.S. backing for his position that Israel would not return to negotiations with the Palestinian Authority until all violence has stopped.
Speaking to Jewish leaders in New York before he left, Sharon said that "the main obstacle to peace today is [PA] Chairman [Yasser] Arafat, who has reverted to terrorism."
"All our intelligence reports indicate that Arafat has strategic control of the situation," Sharon said. Arafat's elite presidential guard, Force 17, as well as gunmen from his Fatah organization have killed Israelis in terror attacks, he added.
As if to hammer the allegation home, Israel accused Force 17 members of firing five mortar shells at two Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip overnight. One of the attackers was killed and three others injured when an Israeli tank returned fire. A Palestinian security services commander denied that Force 17 had been involved in the mortar attack.
Prior to his meeting with Sharon earlier this week, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that "the violence that has gripped the region for six months must stop" before talks can be renewed.
Sharon, the first Middle East leader to be invited to the White House in since President Bush took office, told the president Bush an invitation to Arafat could lead to more terrorism - if it came before the Palestinian leader denounced violence.
There are conflicting reports about the possibility of an Arafat visit to Washington soon. Arab League secretary-general Esmat Abdel Megid said Arafat would go to Washington next month, but a PA official said no invitation has yet been received.
Some analysts believe an invitation to Arafat is necessary if the U.S. is to appear balanced in its handling of issues in the region, and so as not to alienate the PA leader.
Before leaving the U.S., Sharon met U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan, who urged him to ease sanctions imposed on the PA areas.
Annan also raised the issue of an Israeli plan to build nearly 3,000 housing units in a disputed Jerusalem neighborhood.
Sharon told Annan the controversial Har Homa neighborhood was not new and was born out of the need to prevent a "contiguous Palestinian connection" between Bethlehem in the south, and Arab neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem.
Should Palestinian development have spread to the Har Home site, this would have resulted in a continuous swathe of territory under Palestinian domination, from Bethlehem, through eastern Jerusalem, up to Ramallah in the north.
Israel points out that the strategic hilltop on which Har Homa is being built falls within the city's municipal boundaries and so is merely another suburb. The PA argues that, as the land was controlled by Jordan between 1948 and 1967, it is "occupied Arab territory."
Regarding a U.N. Security Council resolution currently under discussion calling for an observer force to be sent to the Palestinian areas, Sharon told Annan Israel unequivocally opposed such a move.
It would "only lead to an increase in terror, because the terrorists would use the U.N. force for protection," he claimed.
An earlier PA attempt to get the Security Council to dispatch a force failed. This second request has garnered more support in the council, although the U.S. has threatened to veto such a resolution.
An international fact-finding commission, headed by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, met Israeli and PA officials on Wednesday.
Both sides had previously submitted a report to the commission, set up as a result of a U.S.-mediated summit last October and mandated to inquire into the reasons behind the outbreak of violence last September.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who met with Mitchell, differentiated between the work of the commission and a mooted U.N. force.
The commission had been agreed upon by both parties and aimed to help find a solution to the violent situation, he said. A U.N. force would not have the same effect.
"Israel is not initiating any acts of terror - we are only reacting," Peres argued. An international force would not have the right to inspect the locations "where terror is being initiated," he said, but only to monitor Israel's reactions to attacks.
"I would rather invest the money in improving the economy than creating an imaginary force, which would only add irritation to the existing irritation," Peres said.