Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin ben Eliezer was forced yesterday to make a formal apology to senior members of the United States government after revealing to the press off-the-cuff comments made by Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in his meetings with them in Washington.
Ben Eliezer told the newspaper Yedioth Aharonot that he was surprised by the tough position senior Bush administration officials, including Cheney, had taken against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
“On the subject, Cheney was more extreme than me,” ben Eliezer said. Ben Eliezer also said that when he had discussed Arafat with Rice, she had said that it was a waste of time dealing with him.
Yedioth Aharonot quoted ben Eliezer yesterday as saying: “The vice president told me: ‘As far as I am concerned, you can even hang him,” with regard to Arafat.
A senior U.S. government official, requesting anonymity, denied Rice or Cheney made the remarks attributed to them by ben Eliezer.
“It’s a fantasy,” said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer of the Arafat quote.
Ben Eliezer said Rice told him there was no point in talking to Arafat any longer. He said similar statements were made by advisers to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
“On this subject (of Arafat), Cheney is more extreme than Rehavam Zeevi,” said ben Eliezer, referring to Israel’s assassinated tourism minister.
The defense minister made personal phone calls of apology to Rice and Cheney. However, Israel’s Channel One Television reported yesterday, ben Eliezer did not manage to reach either of the two and spoke only with their aides.
A statement by the defense minister said that he had never attributed such remarks to the vice president.
“I also want to make clear that no White House official told me that it’s a waste of time dealing with Arafat,” ben Eliezer said, backtracking from his earlier comments.
“There is no difference between what the vice president has said in public or private and what the president said yesterday in the Oval Office concerning our policy on Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority,” said White House national security spokesman Sean McCormack in Washington.
President George W. Bush, speaking to reporters after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, “made very clear what he expects of Chairman Arafat, and that is to make a 100-percent effort to end the violence,” said McCormack. “The Middle East is too important a region not to stay engaged, and we will remain engaged,” the spokesman told reporters.