- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2003

TEL AVIV — President Bush yesterday pressed Israel on one of the thorniest issues for the Jewish state, demanding that it halt Jewish settlements that threaten to fragment a future Palestinian state.

“Israel must deal with the settlements,” Mr. Bush told a round-table of Arab leaders at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik.

“Israel has to make sure that there is a continuous territory that Palestinians can call home,” the president said in remarks later changed by White House officials to read “contiguous territory.”

Mr. Bush’s remarks left little doubt here that he intends to push for a freeze on Jewish settlements in an attempt to implement the “road map,” a multiphased plan aimed at ending 32 months of Middle East bloodshed while restarting peace talks to establish a Palestinian state by 2005.

“There’s definitely American pressure. Bush is talking openly about the evacuation of settlements,” said Emanuel Rosen, a political analyst for Israel’s Channel 10 television news.

“Israel didn’t correctly anticipate the resolve of President Bush, and didn’t correctly assess that [Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon is no longer alone on the playing field.”

The road-map initiative calls for the dismantling of dozens of settler outposts established in the last two years.

Palestinians call the settlement activity, which went forward even during the heyday of the Oslo peace accords in the 1990s, an illegal expropriation of the territory occupied by the Israeli army after the 1967 Israeli-Arab war.

Many of the settlements have been strategically placed to create a Jewish wedge between Arab cities and towns in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, both Palestinians and Israelis have said.

But for Mr. Sharon, dismantling settlements and enforcing building-freeze activities places him on a collision course with one of his most loyal constituencies.

As a Cabinet minister in the 1980s and early 1990s, Mr. Sharon established himself as a champion of settlement expansion as he channeled government funds to build new Israeli towns close to Palestinian population centers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Israeli prime minister is prepared to head off pressure at today’s summit in the Jordanian port city of Aqaba with an announcement that Israel will evacuate about 10 settler outposts that were established illegally, according to local television news reports.

But the road map calls for Israel to evacuate all of the outposts within the first six months of the plan.

Israeli officials have reportedly asked the United States to allow Mr. Sharon to go at his own pace on the settlements so he can contain political opposition within the Israeli Cabinet and protests by settlers.

Settler leaders, who have called the U.S.-sponsored peace plan “a road to hell,” will formally open an opposition campaign today with a press conference and a public protest in the center of Jerusalem.

Israeli officials say that any concessions on the settlements should be preceded by progress by Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in halting attacks on Israeli civilians.

“There’s a psychological identity between Sharon and the settlements. From his perspective, it’s pulling back 25 to 30 years of political lifework,” said Sam Lehman-Wilzig, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University.

“The Americans understand where Sharon is coming from and the sensitivity involved. But if the Palestinians get control of the terrorist apparatus, then Bush will be more willing to turn the screws on Sharon,” he said.

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