President recognizing Israeli settlements

Expected declaration marks shift in U.S. policy


WASHINGTON - President Bush is planning to issue a declaration today that his aides say will recognize Israel's right to retain some Jewish settlements in the West Bank when its boundaries are negotiated with the Palestinians.

The declaration, to be made when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel visits the White House, would represent a subtle but substantial shift in U.S. policy, which has viewed the settlements as obstacles to peace and asserted that final borders must be arrived at through negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Administration officials also said Bush would assert that Palestinian refugees from families that formerly resided in what is now Israel should live in a future Palestinian state to be created on the West Bank and Gaza Strip rather than in the Israeli lands they continue to claim.

The officials said that the declarations - planned for today as part of an elaborately planned visit by Sharon - are a recognition of reality and similar to peace proposals put forward in private in 2000 by President Bill Clinton.

They appear to fall short of what Sharon had been seeking - an acceptance of five specific settlement blocs and an outright rejection of the Palestinian "right of return" to Israel.

The exact language and form of the assurances, and whether they are to be made public right away, were being discussed last night. An Israeli official said that aides to Sharon were also studying the language before the Sharon visit.

Bush's assurances could be part of a letter, or a preamble to a letter, or simply a statement from the President, an administration official said. The statement would be that Israel's future borders would have to recognize "demographic realities" since 1967.

That language, officials said, was code for at least some settlements in the West Bank, where Jewish settlers number some 230,000.

The language that would implicitly reject the complete Palestinian "right of return" would be similarly opaque, according to administration officials, in that it would simply reiterate Israel's identity as a Jewish state and suggest that Palestinians should move, in a final settlement, to their own state rather than Israel.

By offering such limited concessions to Sharon, the administration seemed to be hoping not to alienate the Palestinians, who have rejected Sharon's plan to keep some settlements.

The Israeli leader arrived in Washington yesterday morning and spent the day huddled with aides. He met yesterday evening with Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser.

"The United States is prepared to adopt some kind of language recognizing the demographic realities that have occurred since 1967," said an administration official, referring to settlements outside the boundaries of Israel before it captured the West Bank and Gaza in a war with neighboring Arab countries.

Administration officials said that, by giving these two endorsements of long-standing Israeli objectives, Bush and his aides were hoping to give Sharon political support for his plan to pull Israeli forces and settlers from Gaza and small parts of the West Bank.

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