- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday sought to keep up the momentum in the Middle East peace process through telephone diplomacy, a day after President Bush’s summit with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, which produced a rare public disagreement.

The differences between the United States and Israel on expanding Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank appeared to have created a diplomatic opportunity for the Bush administration, which is often criticized for supporting Israel.

Several senior officials in the Middle East and Europe made it clear to Washington yesterday that Mr. Bush’s opposition to the settlements had not gone unnoticed, administration officials said.

In their conversations with Miss Rice, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas “and others expressed appreciation for the clear statements we’ve made on the ‘road map,’ including the settlements,” a senior State Department official said, referring to the 2003 peace plan.

Mr. Abbas is expected to meet with Mr. Bush later this month during his first U.S. visit since he was elected president of the Palestinian Authority in January.

Miss Rice also spoke with the foreign ministers of Russia, Germany and Jordan, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters.

“We’ll be working with all these parties to move forward on [Israels] disengagement [from Gaza] to make that a success … to make sure that security can be established for Israelis and Palestinians alike and to move forward on the road map,” he said.

Although the Gaza withdrawal is a “unilateral step by Israel,” it is also “an opportunity for everybody, and for Palestinians in particular, to actually see territory return to their administration, to give their people a chance to live and develop in their own space,” Mr. Boucher said.

“We think that’s a very important opportunity and that we and the Palestinians and others want to take advantage of that,” he said.

Mr. Sharon, who visited Mr. Bush at his Texas ranch on Monday, met with Vice President Dick Cheney in Washington yesterday.

Israeli officials said that during the 90-minute session the two discussed bilateral issues and “the Iranian nuclear threat.”

The officials also tried to play down the disagreement on the settlements.

“The United States has never agreed to the Israeli settlement enterprise in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and Gaza Strip. It does not agree to it now. There is no dispute,” Sharon aide Dov Weisglass told Israel’s Army Radio.

The prime minister also met with newspaper editors in Washington yesterday and repeated his call for Mr. Abbas to do more to rein in militants.

“I’ve known him for many years, and there is no doubt he represents a departure from Yasser Arafat’s strategy of terror,” Mr. Sharon said, according to an Israeli official quoted by wire reports.

“But he must take additional steps to dismantle terrorist organizations and stop incitement, or we can’t move forward from the pre-road map stage,” he said. “This position has been endorsed by the United States.”

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