President George W. Bush said on Wednesday Israel had a claim on some West Bank areas, and that "new realities on the ground" would have to be taken into consideration during final status negotiations.
Bush was speaking at a press conference following a two-hour meeting with Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the White House.
Bush said Palestinian refugees should be settled in a Palestinian state rather than in Israel, adding that he was committed to the security of Israel as a vibrant Jewish state.
"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," Bush said during a news conference with Sharon.
The US leader hailed Sharon's plan to evacuate 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank.
"These are historic and courageous actions," Bush said about the proposed withdrawal. "If all parties choose to embrace this moment, they can open the door to progress and put an end to one of the world's longest-running conflicts."
The U.S. president said working together could help build democratic Palestinian institutions, and said that Sharon's plan could lead to a peaceful, democratic, viable Palestinian state.
He also said it is up to responsible Palestinian, Europeans and Americans to play a role in developing such a state.
Asked if the United States recognized Israel's right to keep some settlements in the West Bank, Bush said Sharon had started the process of removing settlements from the West Bank. He added final decisions about Israeli settlements in the West Bank had to wait for "final status" negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians on a Palestinian state.
Bush stressed that Israeli settlements "should be temporary rather than permanent, and therefore not prejudice any final status issues, including final borders."
Regarding the separation wall being built by Israel on Palestinian lands, Bush said it should be security barrier and should be temporary rather than permanent.
When asked by a reporter if America policy in the Middle East favors Israel, Bush replied by saying the U.S. was "tilted" towards peace. He also challenged the Palestinians to match Sharon's boldness and courage.
Sharon said he was encouraged by Bush's support for his plan and added his "disengagement plan" will create a new and better reality for the State of Israel, emphasizing it will improve the country's security and economy.
On his part, Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat rejected Bush's statements. "This is like someone giving a part of Texas' land to China," he told The Associated Press. Over the years, he said, U.S. administrations have assured the Palestinians that issues like borders and settlements would be handled in negotiations between the two sides.
"If Israel wants to make peace, it must talk to the Palestinian leadership," Erekat said.
Another Palestinian official said Bush's commitments to Sharon endanger the future of the entire region. "Bush and Sharon are trying to protect each others' political future but are endangering the political future of Israel, the Palestinians and the whole region," Yasser Abed Rabbo stated.
Earlier on Wednesday, Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat said that U.S. assurances that Israel could keep some key West Bank settlement blocs and would not have to absorb Palestinian refugees would signal the end of the peace process. (Albawaba.com)
© 2004 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )