- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

JERUSALEM — Israeli officials tried to put on a brave front yesterday after President Bush sharply criticized Israeli policies toward the Palestinians and the U.N. Security Council adopted the “road map” peace plan that failed to note Israeli conditions.

Mr. Bush’s criticism of Israel, in a speech in London on Wednesday, was the bluntest since he took office. He called on Israel to freeze settlement construction, dismantle illegal settlements and “end the daily humiliation of the Palestinian people.”

Toughening the U.S. stance on a barrier Israel is building on the West Bank, Mr. Bush said Israel must not prejudice final peace negotiations “with the placement of walls and fences.”

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose friendship with Mr. Bush has been a major political card for him, reacted mildly to the president’s statement.

“Everyone knows that there are issues between Israel and the U.S. on which we don’t agree, but that does not mean there is tension,” he told reporters.

Vice Premier Ehud Olmert said the barrier, which Israel says is necessary to stop suicide bombers but which Palestinians see as land grab, would remain an option.

“Israel will always have the right to take unilateral steps for separation from the Palestinians through a fence or other means,” Mr. Olmert told Israel Radio.

Israeli officials said they were resigned to the expectation that the United States would deduct the cost of parts of the barrier and of building Jewish settlements on occupied land from $9 billion in loan guarantees.

The U.N. Security Council vote on the road map Wednesday, initiated by Russia, was another unpleasant surprise for the Israeli leader. During a visit to Moscow earlier this month, Mr. Sharon had asked President Vladimir Putin not to seek a U.N. vote on the issue.

Israel wants no U.N. role in peacemaking, because it sees the world body as pro-Palestinian.

“Judgment regarding the plan’s implementation will be in the hands of the United States,” Mr. Sharon’s office said in a statement. “Israel will not accept any other intervention in the implementation of the plan.”

Israel had attached 14 conditions for accepting the road map drawn up earlier this year by the Quartet, comprising the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.

Meanwhile, efforts by Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia to achieve a cease-fire had gained momentum yesterday as Hamas officials indicated readiness to concur.

“Hamas is prepared to remove Israeli civilians from the cycle of violence on the condition that Israel guarantee that it will not harm Palestinian civilians,” said Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

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