- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 13, 2005

TEL AVIV — Hard-line Israelis yesterday seized on President Bush’s insistence that Israel honor its commitments under the “road map” peace plan, citing it as evidence that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has misled the public in order to sell his Gaza withdrawal plan.

“There is no American commitment to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the settlement blocs in the final [peace] agreement as we understand them,” said Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz, a member of Mr. Sharon’s Likud Party.

“It was a mistake to present the disengagement’s dividend as a diplomatic agreement with the Americans.”

Mr. Sharon, facing stiff opposition to his plan to remove about 9,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and four small West Bank settlements, has made much of a letter from Mr. Bush last year saying it was “unrealistic” to expect Israel to give up its major West Bank settlements in a final peace deal with the Palestinians.

Mr. Bush repeated that statement at a Monday meeting with Mr. Sharon at his Crawford, Texas, ranch, but also insisted that Israel freeze new settlement activity as required in the road map. Mr. Sharon insisted on Israel’s right to continue building in the large West Bank settlement blocs, as they probably will be annexed and become part of Israel proper in any final peace agreement with Palestinians.

Mr. Bush’s statement, seen as criticism of ongoing work to expand a major settlement in the Jerusalem suburb of Ma’aleh Adumim, rankled Israeli hard-liners who said yesterday it showed neither Mr. Sharon nor Mr. Bush could be trusted.

“The entire imaginary story about American agreement regarding settlement blocs is being exposed,” said an editorial in the Hatzofeh newspaper, an organ of the pro-settler National Religious Party.

“Israel is being asked to withdraw without getting anything in return and it is a pity that Sharon is lending a hand to the possibility of civil war.”

Construction of new housing continued at full speed yesterday in Ma’aleh Adumim, the largest settlement in the West Bank, the Associated Press reported. The publication of a plan to expand Ma’aleh Adumim to link up with Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem brought Israeli and American differences on settlement expansion out into the open several weeks ago.

Binyamin Elon, a member of the far-right National Union party, suggested that Mr. Bush’s statement never signaled a change of American policy, which continues to oppose building in the West Bank.

“It’s the same policy that still exists. Nothing was promised to Sharon. He just needs it for his internal politics in Israel,” Mr. Elon said. “The king is naked, and everyone that understands knows it.”

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