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Bush backs Sharon's plan for settlements But U.S. President asks Israeli PM not to expand West Bank enclaves

But U.S. President asks Israeli PM not to expand West Bank enclaves


stinians may need to cede large chunks of densely populated Jewish suburbs near Jerusalem as the price for an independent sovereign homeland, U.S. President George W. Bush suggested yesterday after holding talks at his Texas ranch with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Although Mr. Bush didn't specifically name the burgeoning Jewish colony of Maale Adumim, the largest Jewish urban sprawl on land taken by Israel in 1967, he appeared to be signalling support for Mr. Sharon's plan to abandon settlements in the Gaza Strip while retaining others in the West Bank.

"Changes on the ground, including existing major Israeli population centres, must be taken into account . . . new realities on the ground make it unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949," Mr. Bush said, fleshing out a position he first unveiled a year ago.

Mr. Bush said Mr. Sharon has demonstrated "strong, visionary leadership by taking difficult steps to improve the lives of people across the Middle East," a view that will find little resonance among Arabs. But despite the President's gushing endorsement of Mr. Sharon, the two men apparently failed to reach agreement on just what constitutes the expansion of an existing settlement.

"Israel has an obligation under the road map. That's no expansion of settlements," Mr. Bush said, adding that more work and dialogue are required.

Israel's position is that a recently announced decision to add 3,500 housing units to Maale Adumim amounts to nothing more than completing long-standing plans for the settlement.

Although Mr. Bush said Israel needs to make good on its obligations and "should remove unauthorized outposts and meet its road-map obligations regarding settlements in the West Bank," his careful wording during a joint news conference at his Prairie Chapel ranch seemed to leave sufficient wiggle room for Israel to maintain its plans to add to Maale Adumim and other West Bank settlements.

Under Mr. Sharon's plan, Israel would dismantle all 21 heavily fortified Jewish settlements in the impoverished Gaza Strip, plus four small settlements in the West Bank. But there are an estimated 120 West Bank settlements in total, and Israel is building a wall that, in places, cuts deep into Palestinian land on the west bank of the Jordan River.

Palestinians fear that the expansion of Maale Adumim could eventually isolate Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem, which they hope to make the capital of a nascent independent state. Israel has already annexed East Jerusalem, but the move remains unrecognized by the international community.

Mr. Bush also made it clear that he won't accept Israel carving the West Bank into Mideast versions of South Africa's apartheid-era bantustans.

"The United States supports the establishment of a Palestinian state that is viable, contiguous, sovereign and independent," he said.

Standing beside Mr. Bush at a pair of lecterns set up outside the President's beloved ranch, Mr. Sharon said he has invited Mr. Bush to visit his farm in Israel. But he also sounded a tough line of his own, apparently aimed at placating the right wing of his Likud Party, which is angry over his plan to abandon the Gaza settlements.

Mr. Sharon demanded that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, take much tougher steps to suppress radical Palestinian factions.

"I hope that Abu Mazen wants peace," Mr. Sharon said. "In order to move forward, [there] must be full cessation of terror, hostilities and incitement. Some initial steps were taken. More steps should be taken."

Renewed violence in Gaza yesterday threatened to derail the tentative steps toward peace that have resumed since the death of long-time Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in November. Mortars slammed into Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip after several days of clashes sparked by the killing of three unarmed Palestinian youths. Some damage was reported, but no casualties.

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