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Middle East: Bush Presses Sharon On West Bank Settlements

U.S. President George W. Bush today publicly pressed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to cancel the planned expansion of a controversial settlement in the West Bank. After the two men met at Bush's Texas ranch, they also told reporters after their talks that they expect Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas to work harder to prevent militants' attacks on Israeli civilians.

Washington, 11 April 2005 -- Bush said he was emphatic in urging Israel not to go ahead with plans to add more than 3,500 homes to the Maaleh Adumim settlement, the largest in the West Bank.

"I told the prime minister of my concern that Israel not undertake any activity that contravenes 'road map' obligations or prejudices final status obligations," Bush said. "Therefore, Israel should remove unauthorized outposts and meet its 'road map' obligations regarding settlements in the West Bank."

Among other things, the so-called "road map" to peace calls for no expansion of any Israeli settlements in the Palestinian lands of the West Bank and Gaza, and for the dismantlement of unauthorized settlements. The road map is backed by the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations.

Sharon said only that his government will comply with the road map, and added that entrenched Israeli settlements will not be surrendered to a future Palestinian state.

"The position of Israel is that in any final status agreement, the major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] will be part of the state of Israel," Sharon said.

Bush supported that statement, repeating what he said a year ago when he and Sharon met at the White House: that the "realities on the ground," as he put it, should be taken into consideration in the final agreement.

Sharon's comments triggered criticism from the Palestinians. Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh accused Israel of looking for excuses to get out of implementing the road map. And Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat urged the Israelis to heed Bush's words.

The radical Islamic movement Hamas warned that the peace process could collapse. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the Palestinians would react to Israeli "violations."

"So far the calm is continuing, but every single Israeli violation will be met by a Palestinian reaction. The calm is about to collapse because the occupation did not stop its aggression and is not showing any seriousness in fulfilling demands for calm," Zuhri said.

Sharon's visit to Bush's ranch in rural Crawford, Texas, had long been scheduled and was meant to show U.S. support for Sharon's plan to withdraw settlements from Gaza. But the concern about the planned expansion of the large West Bank settlement became the focus of the two leaders' talks.
Sharon's visit was the first of three by Middle East leaders to the United States in the coming weeks.

Bush said Gaza remains his focus and that of the rest of the world. He said Sharon was courageous in deciding to withdraw from Gaza, and for being willing to coordinate the move with the Palestinians. He urged Abbas and other Palestinians to work closely with the Israeli government to make the withdrawal succeed.

There are now 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza, and all will be dismantled this summer. Many settlers say they will have to be removed forcibly, and the country is extremely tense over the impending withdrawal. Asked if he fears that a civil war might erupt in his country, Sharon replied: "There is an atmosphere of a civil war, but I am fully convinced that I'll make every effort to avoid it and I am sure we'll be able to implement the [Gaza] disengagement plan [despite] all these difficulties, quietly and peacefully."

While conceding Israel's own responsibility to adhere to the road map, Sharon also called on Abbas to do more to prevent attacks on Israelis. He acknowledged that the Palestinian leader has taken concrete steps to rein in the militants, but called for more action.

Sharon's visit was the first of three by Middle East leaders to the United States in the coming weeks, as Bush continues to promote his vision of spreading democracy in the region. On 25 April, Bush will meet with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, and next month he will meet with Abbas.