|President George W. Bush listens as Israeli PM Ariel Sharon, left, reads a statement at a joint news conference following their talks about Middle East peace process |
Israel is playing down differences that may have emerged during this week's summit between President Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Palestinians are giving Mr. Bush's statements a cautious welcome. The issue of Israeli settlements remains very much at the center of the debate and the conflict.
Days before Mr. Sharon traveled to the United States Israeli officials were playing down any possible rifts between the two countries. Some were quoted as saying that after the two leaders met they would issue a joint statement focusing on the common positions they share. Others were even suggesting the contentious issue of Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands might not be raised at all.
If that is what Israeli officials really thought, they were wrong.
"If he [Sharon] listens to what I say, he will not hear anything contradictory. I have been very clear. Israel has an obligation under the Roadmap [peace plan]. That is no expansion of settlements," declared President Bush.
Mr. Sharon clearly preferred to focus on common ground.
"I am not disappointed," he said. "I think both of us are committed to the Roadmap and the Roadmap says … elaborates on this issue."
The internationally backed peace plan, formally launched by President Bush in June 2003, addresses the settlements issue. In phase one, the plan calls for dismantling small settlement outposts that right-wing Jewish activists have established without anyone's permission, and it also calls for a freeze on all settlement activity, including construction for natural growth of those communities that the Israeli government has authorized.
Both Israel and the Palestinians accepted the Roadmap peace plan, but neither side implemented even the initial phase.
Mr. Sharon has tended to focus on the lack of compliance by the Palestinians - the fact that they had not halted violence or dismantled what he calls the "terrorist infrastructure."
Under newly elected President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinians have made some progress and received praise from Washington for their democratic reforms and for the cease-fire Mr. Abbas concluded with Mr. Sharon during a summit in February. Mr. Abbas has been talking with the militants coaxing them to lay down their weapons and hopefully join the political arena in the near future.
Palestinian chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, says now is the time for Israel to begin complying.
"We hope that Prime Minister Sharon will heed President Bush's call to have a full cessation of settlement activities," he said.
While Palestinian officials may welcome the Bush stance on settlement activity, they are not pleased with his position that "realities on the ground" be taken into account in any future peace deal. The reference is to major Israeli settlements in the West Bank such as Ma'ale Adumim, Ariel, and Gush Etzion, which Israel says it can hold on to with Washington's blessing.
Bar Ilan University Israeli political analyst Menachem Klein says establishing new realities on the ground are vital for Mr. Sharon. He says this is especially true in Ma'ale Adumim, which he says Mr. Sharon plans to use to gain full control of "greater Jerusalem", depriving the Palestinians the eastern portion of the city which they want as their future capital.
"He [Sharon] wants to disconnect Arab East Jerusalem from the hinterland, contain it and then regain full Israeli sovereignty and control," said Professor Klein. "For that he must control the area between Jerusalem and Ma'ale Adumim and if possible also to build there along his plan of 3,500 residential units."
Professor Klein says the Sharon government is creating various "realities on the ground" with its security barrier in and around the West Bank.
And, that is what Palestinians have been fearing all along. While they welcome Mr. Sharon's plan to withdraw all settlements from the Gaza Strip in a few months' time, they believe his real intent is to then consolidate Israeli control over as much of the West Bank as possible. They say American recognition of "realities on the ground," will help Mr. Sharon do just that.