Bush endorses Sharon plan for pullout from Gaza Strip

But he warns Israeli premier against settlement expansion in West Bank

April 12, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CRAWFORD, Texas - President Bush, taking on the high-stakes role of Middle East peace broker, urged Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday to halt the expansion of a major Jewish settlement in the West Bank, even as he endorsed the Israeli leader's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

"I strongly support his courageous initiative to disengage from Gaza and part of the West Bank," Bush said after they met at the president's ranch.

But Bush expressed concern that Sharon's plans to expand some settlements, including Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem, could scuttle the peace process. He warned the Israeli leader to abide by his obligations under the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "roadmap," which mandates that Israel cease such action.

"I told the prime minister of my concern that Israel not undertake any activity that contravenes road map obligations or prejudices final-status negotiations," Bush said.

Sharon said he would fulfill his commitment to Bush "to remove unauthorized outposts and settlements" and abide by the road map, which also calls for Palestinians to disarm militants and envisions the establishment of a Palestinian state.

But he also said he considers Maale Adumim, the largest settlement in the West Bank, a major Jewish population center that will be part of Israel in any final agreement.

Difficult topics

The meeting's idyllic setting on a breezy, sun-soaked day at what is known as the "Western White House" seemed to soften what is otherwise a sharp disagreement between Bush and Sharon over how to advance the peace process.

The chummy air of yesterday's talks, described by aides as "very warm and friendly," was at odds with the challenging subject matter.

Over the weekend, Israeli activists staged demonstrations in Jerusalem's Old City and around Tel Aviv to protest Sharon's Gaza disengagement plan. Israeli troops shot and killed three Palestinian teenagers in the Gaza Strip as Palestinians fired mortars into Jewish settlements there.

Bush faced a delicate task in his meeting with Sharon, which came just weeks before the president is expected to talk with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Bush knows that Sharon needs U.S. backing if he hopes to overcome right-wing domestic opposition to his plan to dismantle Jewish settlements in Gaza and freeze settlements elsewhere.

Bush sought to keep the focus yesterday on Gaza, acknowledging that Israelis and Palestinians are suspicious of each other, but pointing to the planned disengagement as a crucial way of establishing trust.

"There's been a lot of death, a lot of innocent people have lost their lives. And there's just not a lot of confidence in either side," Bush said. With the Gaza withdrawal, he added, "We have a chance to build confidence."

Settlement activity

Bush also realizes, though, that if Sharon moves forward with plans to expand West Bank settlements, as in Maale Adumim, where his government wants to build 3,500 homes, the peace process could crumble. Palestinians angrily oppose the expansion, which would effectively sever Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank.

Continued Israeli settlement activity would undermine Abbas when he, too, is in need of solid backing from Bush to accomplish his obligations under the road map, chief among them cracking down on Palestinian militant groups.

"This is the opportunity for the world to help the Palestinians stand up a peaceful society," Bush said. "I think President Abbas wants that help. I know he needs that help."

Sharon's view

Sharon made it clear, as he has in the past, that while he endorses the road map, he does not yet feel bound by its obligations, because in his view Abbas has not done enough to halt violence.

"In order to move forward, in order to be able later to move to the road map, the Palestinians must take more steps, because it should be completely quiet," Sharon said.

"Some initial steps were taken. More steps should be taken," he added, saying that Abbas should achieve "full cessation of terror, hostilities and incitement."

Bush agreed that the Palestinians should do more to quell violence.

"I appreciate the fact that they've taken some action on security. We want to continue to work with them on consolidating security forces," Bush said.

But he was sharp in his message to Sharon, saying: "I've been very clear [that] Israel has an obligation under the road map. That's no expansion of settlements."

Broader issues

Bush and Sharon also addressed developments in the broader Middle East, said White House press secretary Scott McClellan, who said they "talked about the historic change that is occurring in the region."

The two discussed the status of Iraqi efforts to establish a democratic government and the coming elections in Lebanon, which will test a recent commitment by Syria to make a complete withdrawal from the country.

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