Bush shifts views on the West Bank

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 15-Apr-04 | Author: Brian Knowlton| Source: International Herald Tribune

He acquiesces on Israeli settlements; Palestinians denounce new approach

WASHINGTON President George W. Bush, in a dramatic policy shift, told Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Wednesday that the United States would not object if Israel retained some West Bank settlements under a future peace accord.

Bush, appearing with Sharon after a White House meeting, also lauded the prime minister’s proposal to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, calling it ‘‘courageous and historic’’ and ‘‘an opportunity’’ to accelerate moves toward creation of a Palestinian state.

Palestinian leaders angrily denounced Bush’s new stance, saying it would wreck any hopes for a broad settlement. ‘‘Bush is the first U.S. president to give legitimacy to Jewish settlements on Palestinian land,’’ Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei told reporters in the West Bank, Reuters reported. ‘‘We reject this.’’

The Palestinians also protested a second concession Bush offered Israel, that in the future, Palestinian refugees should immigrate to a new Palestinian state, not to Israeli lands they say their families were forced to flee in the fighting of 1947-48.

Together, the announcements seemed sure to infuriate Arabs and Muslims and perhaps add to widespread resentment of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Anticipating the U.S.-Israeli accord, Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, also issued a denunciation, saying that any such U.S. assurances would destroy prospects for an eventual peace accord, news agencies reported. ‘‘The Palestinian leadership warns of the dangers of reaching such an accord, because it means clearly the complete end of the peace process,’’ Arafat said in a faxed statement.

But Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, who is to meet Bush on Friday in Washington, welcomed Sharon’s pledge to withdraw from Gaza and some settlements in the West Bank.

Bush tried to portray his moves as pragmatic efforts to advance, not impede, chances for peace. He said it was unrealistic to expect that the negotiations meant to lead to a Palestinian state would bring a ‘‘full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.’’

The Palestinian refugee issue, Bush said, would have to be settled through a Palestinian state, by ‘‘the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.’’

Both changes, which Bush said were laid out in letters he and Sharon exchanged, were inspired by Sharon’s disengagement proposal. And they were made in recognition, Bush added, of undeniable changes since lines were drawn at the time of Israel’s creation. ‘‘Realities on the ground and in the region have changed greatly,’’ Bush said.

The president insisted that the new U.S. approach, and Sharon’s proposed withdrawals, were meant to bring Israel and the Palestinians closer to the final agreements on the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

Bush emphasized that any Israeli settlements ‘‘should be temporary rather than permanent, and therefore not prejudice any final status issues, including final borders.’’

He nonetheless was making a dramatic shift from a longtime U.S. position that issues such as borders, refugees’ ‘‘right of return,’’ and the status and control of Jerusalem, be resolved only in final-status talks.

Sharon’s sought-after concessions from Bush had been the subject of in tense negotiations for weeks between aides from the two sides; they are expected to strengthen the prime minister at home, and help him push his disengagement proposal through a binding vote by his Likud party on May 2.

While Bush had indicated as recently as Monday, when he met at the White House with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, that he favored Sharon’s proposed Gaza withdrawal, the White House has also made clear that it did not want to do anything that would set back the U.S.-favored ‘‘road map’’ for peace, stability and the creation of a Palestinian state.

Bush praised Sharon for what he said was his ‘‘bold and courageous decision.’’ Sharon, who smiled widely and appeared deeply pleased by his meeting with Bush, said he was ‘‘encouraged’’ by the president’s reaction.

Sharon promised that his disengagement plan would ‘‘reduce friction and tensions between Israelis and Palestinians’’ while helping advance Bush’s plan for two states living side by side in peace.

The texts of the U.S. and Israeli letters were not immediately available, and it remained unclear how broadly or narrowly the American assurances might be worded, or how carefully finessed to reflect strong Palestinian objections.

But Bush, who rarely criticizes Sharon even while refusing to speak to Arafat, did not appear to hedge or qualify his statements.

One reporter asked Bush about a recent suggestion by former President Jimmy Carter that the administration was being seen to lean toward Israel to the detriment of the peace process.

Bush said that if he was leaning in any direction, it was toward peace.

But Qurei had warned hours earlier that the United States should avoid language ‘‘that is considered a reward for a party or a side at the expense of the other party.’’

‘‘Otherwise,’’ he said, ‘‘there will be no peace.’’

And Khaled al-Batsh, a spokesman for the militant group Islamic Jihad, said the new U.S. stance amounted to ‘‘a declaration of war against the Palestinian people,’’ Reuters reported.