- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 17, 2004

British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday joined President Bush in endorsing Israel’s claim to a disputed portion of the West Bank and said it was “not a unilateral attempt to impose a settlement.”

At a joint press conference in the Rose Garden, Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair shrugged off Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s recent remark that the plan is a “lethal blow” to Palestinians. “It will bring their dreams to an end,” he told the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv.

“I haven’t come across those particular words and I would like to see the context of that,” Mr. Blair told reporters. “But I don’t think that this ends anyone’s dream. I think what it does is give us at least the possibility of moving it forward.

“Look, what have people been asking for years?” he added. “They’ve been asking for the Israelis to withdraw from the occupied territories.”

He was referring to the fact that the plan, first announced by Mr. Bush and Mr. Sharon at the White House on Wednesday, calls for the withdrawal of Jewish settlements from Gaza and portions of the West Bank. In return, Israel would take over other portions of the West Bank now claimed by Arabs.

Mr. Bush also rose to Mr. Sharon’s defense, although he professed ignorance of the prime minister’s remark about ending the dreams of Palestinians.

“I hadn’t seen the context in which he said it either, but I can tell you what he told me: He told me he supported a Palestinian state,” Mr. Bush said.

“Obviously there’s a caveat — he wants a peaceful Palestinian state,” Mr. Bush said. “He wants somebody who will promote peace, not violence, somebody who’s willing to join with a lot of us to fight off terror.”

It was a reference to the president’s dissatisfaction with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whose support for terror appears to have slowed the establishment of a Palestinian state. But Mr. Blair said the new land swap will actually help Palestinians.

“This is not a unilateral attempt to impose a settlement, but it does at least give the Palestinians — if they’re able then to seize this opportunity — the ability to construct in the Gaza and those parts of the West Bank that will be under their control,” Mr. Blair said.

The joint press conference also gave Mr. Blair — a liberal who has been pilloried by the British public for backing Mr. Bush’s war against Iraq — the opportunity to reaffirm his support for the conservative American president.

“We stand firm,” he declared. “We will do what it takes to win this struggle. We will not yield. We will not back down in the face of attacks, either on us or on defenseless civilians.”

Mr. Blair also voiced support for the president’s adherence to the timetable for handing over sovereignty to Iraq on June 30. In the meantime, he pledged to redouble efforts to train Iraqi defense forces and rebuild the war-torn country.

“Of course, there will be resistance,” Mr. Blair said. “We have resistance now by assorted terrorists in Fallujah, by supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr in Najaf.

“We shall deal with both with the right balance of firmness in the face of terror and a clear offer to all people in Iraq, including those who might be tempted to support lawbreaking,” he added.

Mr. Bush appreciated the prime minister’s support.

“In all these efforts, the American people know that we have no more valuable friend than Prime Minister Tony Blair,” the president said. “As we like to say in Crawford [Texas], he’s a stand-up kind of guy. He shows backbone and courage and strong leadership.”

Mr. Blair said he and Mr. Bush will be able to leverage that leadership through the Group of Eight (G-8), an economic coalition of the world’s major industrial democracies. Mr. Bush will host this year’s G-8 summit at Sea Island, Ga., in June.

“Alongside the strategy for Iraq, we will seek to broaden the agenda for international action and cooperation,” Mr. Blair said. “The G-8 gives us the chance, under the chairmanship of the United States this year and Britain the next, to construct such an agenda.”

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