- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 12, 2005

CRAWFORD, Texas — President Bush yesterday failed to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to abandon plans for a Jewish settlement expansion that would cut off Arab East Jerusalem from the West Bank.

“No expansion of settlements,” Mr. Bush declared three times at a joint press conference with Mr. Sharon at the president’s ranch.

But Mr. Sharon appeared determined to press ahead with plans to expand the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement by 3,500 homes.

“Ma’aleh Adumim is one of the blocs of Jewish population, and our position is that they should be part of Israel,” Mr. Sharon said. “It will be part of Israel.”

He added: “We are very much interested that [there] will be contiguity between Ma’aleh Adumim and Jerusalem.”

Mr. Sharon, who riled the Bush administration last month by announcing plans for the expansion, was asked yesterday whether he was disappointed by the president’s opposition.

“No, I’m not disappointed,” he said, adding that resolving the issue “might take many years. And I believe that we will have enough opportunities to come and continue our talks with the United States.”

Mr. Bush said settlement expansion is barred by the internationally devised “road map” for a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

“The road map clearly says no expansion of settlements,” he said. “I told the prime minister of my concern that Israel not undertake any activity that contravenes road map obligations.”

Although Mr. Sharon also expressed his commitment to the road map, his interpretation of the document is apparently at odds with the president’s.

“Both of us are committed to the road map, and the road map says — and elaborates on this issue,” Mr. Sharon said.

Indeed, the road map calls on Israel to freeze “all settlement activity, including natural growth of settlements.”

Palestinians agree with Mr. Bush that this applies to Ma’aleh Adumim. Moreover, the planned expansion would cut off part of the West Bank from East Jerusalem, which the Arabs want as capital of a Palestinian state.

“I hope that Prime Minister Sharon will adhere to President Bush’s call to stop all settlement activities because I believe this is the key to everything; this is the key to success,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Reuters in the West Bank after the press conference.

Mr. Sharon’s call to expand Ma’aleh Adumim is widely viewed as an effort to placate conservatives in his Likud Party, who are upset about his plan to withdraw all 21 Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and four of 120 settlements in the West Bank.

Mr. Sharon’s withdrawal plan was hailed by Mr. Bush yesterday.

“I strongly support his courageous initiative to disengage from Gaza and part of the West Bank,” Mr. Bush said. “The prime minister is willing to coordinate the implementation of the disengagement plan with the Palestinians.

“I urge the Palestinian leadership to accept his offer,” he added. “But he’s going to withdraw — coordination or no coordination.”

Mr. Sharon also warned that further progress on the road map is not possible until Palestinians do more to dismantle terrorist operations. He said the “atmosphere of a civil war” lingers in the Middle East, and Mr. Bush said the prime minister’s wariness is understandable.

“Until he sees more progress, he doesn’t have confidence,” Mr. Bush said. “And I suspect if we were to have a frank discussion about it, the Palestinians would say, ‘Well, we don’t have confidence in Israel.’”

After the press conference, Mr. Bush had lunch with Mr. Sharon and discussed Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Then the two took a tour of the president’s 1,600-acre Prairie Chapel Ranch.

At one point, the prime minister invited Mr. Bush to his farm in Israel.

“I would be very glad, Mr. President, to have you as a guest on our farm, not only because we are short of labor,” Mr. Sharon said.

Mr. Bush responded with a laugh: “You’re desperate for labor if you’re counting on me.”

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