CRAWFORD, Tex., April 11 -- President Bush told Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday that the United States opposes Israel's plans to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank and prodded him to stick to the U.S.-backed vision for peace in the Middle East.
Bush, holding a first-ever meeting at his Texas ranch with Sharon, offered the Israeli leader the high-profile endorsement of the Gaza pullout he was seeking and urged the Palestinians to coordinate with Israel. The president repeated his assurance that Israel would not be expected to surrender some West Bank areas in future negotiations.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, left, and President Bush walk to a news conference at Bush's Texas ranch.
(Larry Downing -- Reuters)
While he praised the prime minister for vowing to remove "unauthorized" Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territory, mostly in Gaza, Bush cautioned Sharon not to expand the largest one in the West Bank, Maaleh Adumim.
"I told the prime minister not to undertake any activity that contravenes" the "road map" for peace supported by the United States, much of Europe and key leaders in the Middle East, Bush told reporters at the ranch, with Sharon standing by his side. "Israel has obligations under the road map. The road map clearly says no expansion of settlements."
Sharon, who earlier said he faces a civil war back home over his plan to pull Jewish settlers out of Gaza, showed no signs of backing away from eventually building more than 3,500 homes in the West Bank. He called on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to crack down on terrorists if he wants peace talks to prosper. "Only after the Palestinians fulfill all their obligations, first and foremost a real war against terrorism and the dismantling of the terror infrastructure . . . can we proceed toward negotiations based on the road map," Sharon said.
The two leaders, despite their disagreement over the West Bank settlement issues, said they were committed to moving forward with the goal of creating an independent, democratic Palestinian state on Israel's border and were hopeful significant progress will be made by this summer toward achieving a lasting peace.
Bush and Sharon did not appear to break any new ground in the talks, but both men walked away from their 11th meeting in four years with the ammunition they sought to keep the peace process alive and deflect criticism of their respective approaches at home and abroad.
Sharon, under fire from settlers and members of the Likud Party, was seeking support in public to mollify critics. One U.S. official said the carefully worded exchange over settlements will allow Sharon to get back on the plane and tell the Israeli press how Bush generally supports the prime minister's moves.
The president applauded Sharon's "courage" for planning to remove all 21 settlements from Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank, requiring 9,000 Israelis to leave their homes. Bush also welcomed the prime minister's promise that he would "fulfill my commitment to you, Mr. President, to remove unauthorized outposts." Sharon has promised in the past to remove them but has not.
Both leaders have reaped political benefit at home from their close alliance, but some conservatives in both countries worry Bush and Sharon are yielding too much, too soon as part of the peace talks. Some American Christians, who consider the disputed areas land God promised to the Israelites, Monday protested the Gaza pullout a few miles away from the ranch.
For Bush, the next few months should offer clues as to whether the election of Abbas was truly a breakthrough for stalled peace talks or simply another moment of fleeting hope in the Middle East. The president plans to host Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah at his Texas ranch on April 25 and then meet with Abbas when the Palestinian leader visits the United States next month.
Bush noted "a lack of confidence in the region" and said: "I can understand that. A lot of innocent people have lost their lives. And there's just not a lot of confidence on either side." He said a successful pullout of Gaza could inject new energy and momentum into the peace process.
With periodic violence and retaliations for it complicating peace talks, the Palestinian Authority is planning to hold new elections in July -- with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two groups on the U.S. terrorist list, expected to participate and possibly do well. Some members of Abbas's ruling Fatah movement want to delay elections to prevent a landslide victory by the terrorist groups. But Abbas has said the elections will take place as planned.
The July 17 elections will coincide with Sharon's planned withdrawal from the settlements. If Hamas and Islamic Jihad win, Sharon could face more domestic pressure to abandon his plans to leave Palestinian territory.
The constant threat of violence could derail the elections and the planned withdrawal before they get started. Although the number of suicide bombings has dropped dramatically since Yasser Arafat's death in November, the killing has not stopped. In recent days, Israeli troops killed three Palestinian teenagers, prompting Palestinian militants to launch 70 mortar shells at Israeli communities in Gaza. The shooting was the most serious since Abbas and Sharon declared a truce at a Feb. 8 summit.
Israeli Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz, reacting to the mortar attack, said Monday that Abbas may be too weak to bring peace to the region. Abbas "believes it's possible to achieve peace; he wants it, but we are not sure he can do it," Pines-Paz said at a conference in Amsterdam. Sharon, striking a more optimistic tone in Bush's presence, said: "This is the year of great opportunity to start building a better future for our children and grandchildren and . . . our peoples must make sure this opportunity is not missed."