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Bush praises Sharon, but disagrees on West Bank settlement

CRAWFORD, Texas—President Bush gave Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a political pat on the back and also showed a rare display of disagreement Monday, praising Sharon for his plan to disengage from Gaza and parts of the West Bank and pressing him to drop a proposed expansion of a large Jewish settlement on the West Bank.

Bush objected to Israel's plans to add 3,650 homes to Maaleh Adumim—the West Bank's largest Jewish settlement—saying it would cut off Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank and violate the so-called "road map" peace plan.

The road map—devised by the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union—calls for a freeze on Israeli settlements, for Palestinians to disarm militants, and for both sides to negotiate over disputed territories.

"I told the prime minister of my concern that Israel not undertake any activity that contravenes road map obligations or prejudice final status negotiations," Bush told reporters following a meeting with Sharon. "Therefore, Israel should remove unauthorized outposts and meet its road map obligations regarding settlements in the West Bank."

Bush added, "And part of that process is no expansion of settlements."

Sharon didn't publicly respond to questions about whether construction and expansion of settlements would continue, saying only that the major settlements on the West Bank would remain under Israeli control. "It is the Israeli position that the major Israeli population centers will remain in Israel's hands under any future final status agreement, with all related consequences," Sharon said.

Bush said that, as part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders that emerge from negotiations between the two parties. He repeated his April statement that "realities on the ground" make it unrealistic to expect Israel to return to its 1949 armistice lines, in effect accepting Israel's claim to land claimed by settlers on the West Bank.

Sharon told Bush that Israel would remove all unauthorized outposts and meet "all of its obligations" under the road map regarding settlements.

But Sharon warned that Israel would be unable to move forward with the road map until Palestinian officials do more to crack down on violence and disarm militant groups.

"I believe that 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," he said. "The situation, in order to move forward, must be full cessation of terror, hostilities and incitement."

The disagreement over Maaleh Adumim obscured the main purpose of Monday's meeting at Bush's Prairie Chapel Ranch: for Sharon to get strong U.S. backing—and cover—for his plan to remove some 9,000 Jewish settlers from the Palestinian Gaza Strip.

The plan has created controversy among Israelis and has become a political nightmare at home for Sharon with large protests opposing his plan.

"The tension here (in Israel), the atmosphere here looks like the eve of the civil war," Sharon said in an NBC News interview Sunday. "All my life I was defending (the) life of Jews. Now, for the first time, steps (that) I'm taking (are) to protect me from Jews."

Concerned about potential problems in the Crawford area, security—which is usually tight when a foreign dignitary visits—appeared to increase for Sharon's visit.

Bush hailed Sharon's "visionary leadership by taking difficult steps to improve the lives of people across the Middle East."

"I strongly support his courageous initiative to disengage from Gaza and part of the West Bank," he added.

For all the positive talk about progress between Israelis and Palestinians, Bush acknowledged that "there's skepticism" on both sides about the peace process. Israelis complain about a lack of progress within the Palestinian Authority, and Palestinians are taking Israel to task on settlements.

"I suspect that if there's a (Palestinian) state emerging, the prime minister will have a different attitude about whether or not it makes sense to continue the process," Bush said. "And so I want the world's attention on getting it right in Gaza, and then, all of a sudden, people will start to say, `Gosh, well that makes sense.' The Palestinians will see there's a hopeful way forward."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BUSH-SHARON

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