President Bush yesterday endorsed Israel's claim to parts of the West Bank seized in the 1967 Middle East war and asserted that Palestinian refugees cannot expect to return to their homes inside Israel, an explicit shift in U.S. policy immediately attacked by Palestinian political leaders.
Standing alongside Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the White House, Bush said it would be "unrealistic" to return to the region's prewar boundaries, affirming that some large Israeli settlements long considered illegal by American and international diplomats would be allowed to remain.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Bush leave after presenting a joint statement to the media.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- AP)
Live, 3 p.m. ET: Ali Abunimah, co-founder of Electronicintifada.net and vice president of Arab American Action Network, will discuss Sharon's visit with President Bush.
Audio: Reporting from Jerusalem, The Post's John Ward Anderson discusses reaction Sharon's withdrawal plan.
Video: Palestinian politicians reacted angrily to Bush's statements.
Bush stopped short of specifying which settlements Israel could keep, but, in publicly backing an Israeli strategy developed without Palestinian input, he set aside years of U.S. policy that deemed the West Bank settlements obstacles to peace in the region. The shape of the border and the fate of refugees were to be settled in final negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
The new U.S. approach is aimed at breaking a three-year stalemate in the peace process marked by deadly violence, reprisals and deepening despair. Bush administration officials said they concluded the best hope of jump-starting the process was to embrace Sharon's unilateral strategy, which includes withdrawing Israeli settlers from the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip and building a security wall between Israelis and Palestinians.
Some Middle East specialists warned Bush's embrace of Sharon and his plan risked undermining U.S. goals in the region.
Reaction from Palestinian leaders was swift and pointed. Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia told reporters at his home in the West Bank town of Abu Dis that the move "kills the rights of the Palestinian people" and said: "We as Palestinians reject that. We cannot accept that. We reject it and we refuse it."
Diana Buttu, legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team, said in Washington: "What the United States is doing is rewarding Israel for negotiations that failed."
Bush and Sharon each had domestic political reasons for reaching an agreement, with a U.S. presidential election less than eight months away and Sharon's Likud Party due to vote soon on his strategy of disengaging from the Palestinians.
A desire to avoid further alienating Arab opinion helped keep the White House from backing all of Sharon's plan, officials said. The administration, entangled in an increasingly bloody battle for Iraq and a global fight against Islamic extremism, is widely perceived abroad to favor Israel over the Palestinians.
Opposition to settlements has been official U.S. policy for more than 20 years, even as the Israeli population in Gaza and the West Bank steadily increased. By erecting tens of thousands of roofs on formerly Arab land, Israelis sought to create the reality that Bush said he is now simply acknowledging.
Former senator and Middle East mediator George J. Mitchell drafted a series of measures endorsed by Bush early in his term. Mitchell believed freezing settlement activity should be Israel's top priority, just as halting violence was the main Palestinian requirement.
President George H.W. Bush was so angered by settlement activity -- directed by Sharon at the time -- that he withheld $400 million in loan guarantees. By mid-2002, however, his son's White House had decided not to make a strong effort to curb continued settlement expansion.
Bush asserted in a written response to Sharon yesterday that the unilateral plan to withdraw Israeli soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip and small sections of the West Bank would "make a real contribution towards peace" and help fulfill Bush's own vision of two states side by side. At a news conference, he called Sharon's plan "historic and courageous."
"His future depends upon his capacity to convince the Israeli people he's doing the right thing, and I think he is," Bush said. "He's a bold leader. That's what people want. They want leadership. There is a process that got stuck, and the prime minister steps up and leads."