WASHINGTON - U.S. President George W. Bush yesterday issued an enthusiastic endorsement of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan, calling it "brave and courageous." In a letter to Sharon, Bush said "new realities on the ground" - meaning concentrations of Jewish settlers in the territories - would have to be taken into consideration during final status negotiations, that Israel would not have to fully withdraw to the Green Line, and that Palestinian refugees would return to the Palestinian state, not Israel.
In his letter to Sharon, Bush said the U.S. was committed to the road map and would do "its utmost" to prevent any other political plan from being imposed on Israel. The letter backs Israel's right to self-defense and combat terror from territories it evacuates.
Speaking at a press conference beside a beaming Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the White House, Bush publicly stated what his letter said: "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," meaning the Green Line.
Sharon said his disengagement plan would create "a new and better reality for the state of Israel" and emphasized it would improve the country's security and economy. He was ebullient and joking during his exchanges with reporters, saying he was encouraged by Bush's support for his plan.
Sharon's letter promises to limit construction in the territories. Talks will begin shortly between Israel and the U.S. over what will constitute the "built-up areas" of the settlements, beyond which construction will be forbidden. In a separate letter to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Dov Weisglass, on behalf of Sharon, will itemize all the outstanding Israeli commitments, including the evacuation of illegal outposts and releasing confiscated PA money.
Talks will also begin soon on financial aid programs for Gaza, the Negev and Galilee. Israel is seeking loan guarantees for $5 billion for those purposes. National Security Adviser Giora Eiland met yesterday with World Bank officials to discuss Gaza development. Sharon has mentioned the idea of handing the settlements over to the World Bank, for it to decide how to use them for Palestinian benefit.
Speaking to reporters after the press conference, Sharon said the government would not intervene in determining where the evacuated settlers from Gaza will move. But the government will encourage them to move to the Negev.
The formulation of the letters was only completed yesterday just before the meeting between Sharon and Bush. Indeed, Sharon threatened not to go to Washington if the language of the letters did not meet his satisfaction. He told reporters that he was ready to cancel the trip on Monday night - and indeed delayed his departure - because there were items that needed correction in the language of the letters that would be exchanged. And while he received a draft that appeared right to him before departing, upon arrival he discovered that there were still gaps and deliberations continued to the last minute. Sources in his entourage said the gaps were not over principles, but details.
Both the Palestinians and Israelis have responsibilities to undertake in the search for peace, Bush said. Today, Israel "stepped up to those responsibilities," he said, noting that Palestinians must do the same.
The president said working together could help build democratic Palestinian institutions, and said that Sharon's plan, which he termed as "courageous," could lead to a peaceful, democratic, viable Palestinian state. He also said it is up to responsible Palestinians, Europeans and Americans to play a role in developing such a state.
Regarding the separation fence being constructed by Israel in the West Bank, Bush said it should be a security barrier and should be temporary rather than permanent. Asked by a reporter if American policy in the Middle East is tilted toward Israel, Bush responded by saying the U.S. was "tilted toward peace."
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