NEW YORK - President George W. Bush on Tuesday called on Israel to impose a freeze on settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and to end the "daily humiliation" of the Palestinians.
In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Bush issued a direct challenge to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon while also calling on Palestinians to adopt peaceful means to achieve the rights of their people.
"Israel should impose a settlement freeze, dismantle unauthorized outposts, end the daily humiliation of the Palestinian people, and avoid any actions that prejudice final negotiations. And world leaders should withdraw all favor and support from any Palestinian ruler who fails his people and betrays their cause," Bush said.
Bush also said that a "commitment to democratic reform is essential to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict." Hinting at Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, the president said: "Peace will not be achieved by Palestinian rulers who intimidate opposition, tolerate corruption, and maintain ties to terrorist groups. The long-suffering Palestinian people deserve better. They deserve true leaders capable of creating and governing a free and peaceful Palestinian state."
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom downplayed the comments Bush made about Israel, saying the speech as a whole sent the "very firm message" that the world must fight terror and bring democracy to the Mideast.
The speech conveyed that "the United States thinks the entire world must unite under one joint goal - and that is fighting terrorism on the one hand, and on the other hand providing democracy and liberty to the entire Middle East region," Shalom told Israel Radio in an interview from New York. "Both these things together will bring stability to the Middle East and to the entire world."
Bush appeared determined that the U.S.-backed road map to peace is still a viable option. "Those who would lead a new Palestinian state should adopt peaceful means to achieve the rights of their people, and create the reformed institutions of a stable democracy," he said.
He also called on the Arab world to normalize ties with Israel. "Arab states should end incitement in their own media, cut off public and private funding for terrorism, and establish normal relations with Israel."
Israeli government sources said Bush's comments did not signal any rift between Israel and the United States.
In talks in New York, Shalom told U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell that Israel has already dismantled 80 illegal outposts, a senior source in Shalom's delegation said Tuesday.
"Our obligations in this matter will be implemented," Shalom told Israel Radio.
Israel is also refraining from constructing new settlements, an Israeli source said. "When you talk about construction in general, Israel does not build new settlements in the West Bank or in Gaza," the source said. "It adheres to the understanding where the only building that takes place is within the built-up area, to cater for current needs of each of the communities."
Nonetheless, Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said Bush should find a way to make Israel comply with the settlement freeze.
"We urge President Bush to put [into motion] the mechanism with the UN and other members of the Quartet to make the Israeli government comply once and for all with the settlement freeze," Erekat told Reuters.
With the U.S. election approaching on November 2, U.S. analysts have explained the administration's initially muted response to Israeli settlement plans by saying the Republican president had no desire to pick a fight with Israel that could cost him votes in a tight contest against Democratic Sen. John Kerry.
After four years of violence and stalemate, analysts say the administration wants to nurture the one plan they think has some hope of becoming reality: Sharon's unilateral push to uproot all settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank.
With Washington's refusal to talk to Arafat and the absence of another empowered Palestinian interlocutor, supporting Sharon's plan seems the best bet to eliminate some settlements, U.S. officials have said.
Bush also delivered an unapologetic defense of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, telling the UN that his decision "helped to deliver the Iraqi people from an outlaw dictator." He appealed to the world community to join together in supporting the new Iraqi interim government.
Bush's speech to the General Assembly, running just 24 minutes, also included an appeal for intensifying the global war against terrorism and for focusing energies on humanitarian missions, from helping to end the bloody violence in Sudan to combating AIDS in Africa.
Two years after he told the world body that Iraq was a "grave and gathering danger" and challenged delegates to live up to their responsibility, Bush strongly defended his decision to lead a coalition that overthrew Saddam Hussein's regime without the blessings of the UN Security Council.
He spoke shortly after UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan opened the 191-nation gathering with a warning that the "rule of law" is at risk around the world.
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