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U.S.: Bush Softens Tone On Israel After Talks With Sharon

Four days after meeting Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, U.S. President George W. Bush welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the White House yesterday. Their talks focused on ways to maintain the momentum behind the U.S.-backed "road map" for Middle East peace.

Washington, 30 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Last week, U.S. President George W. Bush delivered some tough words for Israel after meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas for the first time at the White House.

With the new Palestinian leader at his side, Bush said he considers Israel's construction of a security barrier in the West Bank to be a "problem." Palestinians say the barrier -- which they refer to as a wall -- violates their rights, confiscates their land, and jeopardizes the road map to Mideast peace.

But yesterday, Bush's tone was changed. Flanked by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the White House Rose Garden, Bush avoided any confrontation with Sharon over the barrier, mentioning it only in passing.

Sharon, meanwhile, told a news conference that Israeli will continue building the barrier to prevent Palestinian terrorist attacks. "The security fence will continue to be built, with every effort to minimize the infringement on the daily life of the Palestinian population," he said.

That remark elicited no response from Bush. On 25 July, Bush had said confidence between Palestinians and Israelis is hard to build with an Israeli wall "snaking through the West Bank."

Yesterday, Bush simply asked Sharon to consider the consequences of Israel's actions on the road map, which calls for reciprocal steps leading to a Palestinian state by 2005. Bush also called on Sharon to take further steps to improve the lives of Palestinians.

But the U.S. president said progress toward peace is primarily up to the Palestinians. "The rise of a peaceful Palestinian state and the long-term security of the Israeli people both depend on defeating the threat of terrorist groups and ending incitement and hatred," he said.

The difference in Bush's tone in his appearances with Abbas and Sharon is prompting some criticism. Murhaf Jouejati is a fellow with the Middle East Institute, a think tank in the U.S. capital, as well as a professor at George Washington University. Jouejati told RFE/RL that Bush risks losing credibility in his Mideast peace endeavors by telling "one party one thing, and another party another thing."

"This is reflective, really, of the U.S. administration's -- probably -- inability to lean on Israel. Yet, this is exactly the time when the U.S. administration should lean on both parties of the conflict in order finally to have this road map progress. And by the very silence of President Bush, this almost gives a green light to Israel to construct that fence," Jouejati said.

Others see a more positive picture. University of Michigan professor Raymond Tanter is a Mideast expert who served on former President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council. He said Bush has taken a different approach to Mideast peace, focusing not on the sticky details of individual issues, such as the security fence, but on the larger picture -- such as removing obstacles to Arab-Israeli peace in the wider Middle East.

Tanter told RFE/RL that the war in Iraq and against Al-Qaeda has put pressure on "rogue regimes" such as Iran and Syria, as well as on Palestinian militants. He said this has created an opportunity for progress toward peace between Israel and Palestinians. "The devil is not in the details. The devil is in the neighborhood," he said. "And, in fact, the devil is on the run in the form of Al-Qaeda on the run, Saddam [Hussein] on the run, the sons of Saddam being killed."

Tanter added that as progress is made in Iraq and against Al-Qaeda, Palestinian militants will be further marginalized to the benefit of moderates, such as Abbas. Tanter said the Bush administration believes that only by "draining the swamp" of terrorists and rogue regimes will conditions be ripe in the Middle East for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

At the White House, Bush and Sharon discussed a range of other issues, including Israeli settlements. Sharon said Israel will remove illegal Jewish "outposts" in Arab areas. According to the road map, Israel must take down all such outposts that have been built since March 2001. It must also halt "settlement activity" at nearly 150 legal Jewish settlements.

Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr later dismissed Sharon's comments, saying Israel had halted neither settlement activity nor the building of the security fence. Amr called such inaction "big obstacles" on the road map to peace.

Bush and Sharon also said they agreed that Israel should not release any Palestinian prisoners who are likely to return to terrorism.

Last week, Abbas demanded that Israel release more than 7,000 prisoners. Israel has set free a few hundred, and Sharon has promised to release hundreds more.

Sharon also signaled that Israel may be willing to make more concessions if the current lull in Palestinian violence continues and Abbas breaks up terrorist organizations.

But the chief of Israel's armed forces said in Jerusalem that he fears a truce recently announced by Palestinian militants will not last very long. "I am counting the days until the next wave of violence erupts," Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon told Israeli army radio.