U.S. backs Israeli pullout plan

Some settlements to close

right of return precluded

A major shift in American policy

Palestinian leaders reject position of Bush, Sharon

April 15, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush endorsed yesterday Israel's determination to retain some of the biggest Jewish settlements in the West Bank and its plan to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip, significantly altering the map of the Middle East.

In a shift that provided U.S. support for some of Israel's major goals in its long conflict with the Palestinians, Bush also backed Israel's policy that Palestinian refugees from the fighting of 1947 to 1948 would not have the right to return to Israel, but could live in a future Palestinian state.

Bush's endorsement of the Israeli plan, formally presented to him yesterday at the White House by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, marked what might be the biggest change in U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the collapse of peace talks in 2000 and the beginning of three years of violence between the two sides.

It also abandons a long-standing American policy of discouraging either side from taking major steps that are not agreed upon in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. In a statement read while he stood next to Sharon at the White House, Bush endorsed the preservation of certain large Jewish settlements in the West Bank that have grown into suburbs of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

"The realities on the ground and in the region have changed greatly over the last several decades, and any final settlement [between Israel and the Palestinians] must take into account those realities and be agreeable to the parties," Bush said.

One of the realities is the "existing major Israeli population centers," Bush said, referring to the large settlements. He said it is "unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949."

The cease-fire line served as a de facto border until the 1967 Middle East war and is still viewed by Palestinians and the Arab world as the legitimate dividing line between the two peoples.

On the refugees, Bush said, "It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final-status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state and the settling of Palestinian refugees there rather than Israel."

Sharon told Bush he was "encouraged by your positive response and your support for my plan," adding: "You have proven, Mr. President, your ongoing deep and sincere friendship to the state of Israel and to the Jewish people."

But Palestinians said the new American position takes away important bargaining chips in any future negotiation with Israel.

Speaking in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said that Bush "is the first president who has legitimized the [Jewish] settlements in Palestinian territories."

"We as Palestinians reject that. We cannot accept that. We reject it and we refuse it," Qureia said.

Earlier, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had called it "the complete end of the peace process."

The Bush-Sharon understanding was worked out over months of quiet talks between top aides to Bush and the prime minister in Washington and Jerusalem after Sharon unveiled the outline of his plan in December.

The Sharon plan calls for Israel to withdraw some military installations and all 7,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip, the congested territory on the Mediterranean coast that is inhabited by 1 million Palestinians. It also calls for evacuation of four isolated Jewish settlements in the northern West Bank that total about 500 people.

Many Israeli officials have come to see defense of the Gaza settlements and the more remote West Bank settlements as a drain on the Israeli military. In a letter to Bush yesterday, Sharon said his disengagement plan is "designed to improve security for Israel and stabilize our political and economic situation. It will enable us to deploy our forces more effectively" until negotiations with the Palestinians resume.

Bush hailed Sharon's decision to dismantle settlements in Gaza and the West Bank as "historic and courageous actions." A White House official described the move by Sharon, a longtime champion of settlements, as "a considerable advance on the road to peace."

"If all parties choose to embrace this moment, they can open the door to progress and put an end to one of the world's longest-running conflicts," Bush said.

In a letter to Sharon, Bush recognized that Israel retains the right to defend itself against attacks and take action against militant organizations, indicating that Israel can enter Gaza to crack down on Palestinian militants.

To prevent the Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad from taking over Gaza, Bush pledged that the United States will work with Egypt and Jordan to help the Palestinian Authority rebuild its security organizations. This way, he indicated, Israel could avoid having to take action.

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