- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 15, 2004

President Bush yesterday endorsed Israel’s claim to a disputed portion of the West Bank and said Palestinian refugees must settle outside Israel, prompting anger from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The shift in Mr. Bush’s Middle East policy reflected a growing frustration with Mr. Arafat’s support for terrorism. But the president also backed a move by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to placate the Palestinians withdrawal of Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and a section of the West Bank.

By claiming other land in the West Bank, Mr. Sharon dashed the hopes of Palestinians who had sought a return to borders drawn more than a half-century ago. They wanted those borders incorporated into final peace talks with Israel.

“In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949,” the president said in a joint press conference with Mr. Sharon.

The smiling prime minister was clearly pleased to have secured the president’s support in keeping at least some of Israel’s gains in the 1967 war, when it seized Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

“I, myself, have been fighting terrorism for many years,” Mr. Sharon said in the White House. “In all these years, I have never met a leader as committed as you are, Mr. President, to the struggle for freedom and the need to confront terrorism wherever it exists.”

Israeli officials expressed deep satisfaction with Mr. Bush’s statement, seen as critical to Mr. Sharon’s hopes of selling the political plan back home.

“Understandings reached today between the prime minister and President Bush gives us the assurance to move forward, to take the risks that go with giving up territory and evacuating established settlements,” said Daniel Ayalon, Israeli ambassador to the United States.

Officials said that logistically and politically it would take Israel nine months to a year to implement the plan.

Mr. Arafat denounced the new U.S.-Israeli agreement.

“The Palestinian leadership warns of the dangers of reaching such an accord, because it means clearly the complete end of the peace process,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Arafat added that the pact would prompt a “cycle of violence and end all the signed agreements” between Israel and the Palestinians.

A senior administration official acknowledged that U.S.-Israeli talks have “obviously generated a lot of anxiety,” but suggested that Mr. Arafat’s reaction was unfair.

“It’s, I think, regrettable that some of these statements are being issued and positions taken before anyone has had an opportunity to actually look at the language of what the president has said and what the prime minister has said,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“If people will take the time and look at the language and put it in the broader context of the opportunity that is here they will, on reflection, see that there is really an opportunity for peace,” the official added.

White House officials said Mr. Bush was trying to “jump-start” the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians.

But the president risked alienating Arabs by softening his opposition to a security wall Israel is erecting to separate itself from Palestinian territories. Mr. Bush, who once called the wall “a problem,” yesterday appeared to endorse it.

“I am strongly committed to the security of Israel,” he told Mr. Sharon. “The barrier being erected by Israel as a part of that security effort should, as your government has stated, be a security rather than a political barrier.

“It should be temporary, rather than permanent, and therefore not prejudice any final status issues, including final borders,” the president added.

The deal yesterday, if implemented, means that Mr. Sharon would withdraw all settlements from Gaza, where about 7,000 Israelis have settled among 1.3 million Palestinians. It was not clear how many of the 220,000 Israelis living among the 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank would leave.

As for Palestinian refugees who end up behind Israeli borders, Mr. Bush made clear that they would have to move.

“It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel,” he said.

When a reporter pointed out that former President Jimmy Carter had said last week that U.S. Middle East policy is tilted too much toward Israel, Mr. Bush said: “U.S. Middle East policy is tilted toward peace.”

“I’m the first American president ever to have articulated the creation of a Palestinian state,” he said. “Palestinians have got to assume the responsibility of fighting off terror if they want a state which provided a hopeful future for their people.”

The president downplayed his influence in helping Mr. Sharon persuade fellow members of his conservative Likud Party to support withdrawal of settlements from Gaza.

“I don’t buy the premise that what I say helps him get elected,” Mr. Bush said. “His future doesn’t depend upon me. His future depends upon his capacity to convince the Israeli people that he’s doing the right thing, and I think he is.”

Mr. Sharon shrugged off a suggestion that the agreement would place him in greater danger of assassination.

“Did I make a risky decision?” he said. “When the issue is the security of the state of Israel which I am fully responsible for and political and economic future of the state of Israel, I believe that personal issues like personal security is not to be taken into consideration.”

David R. Sands contributed to this report.

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