President Bush has endorsed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from some Palestinian areas while keeping Jewish settlements in others. The two leaders met at the White House Wednesday. President Bush said that the prime minister's plan is a historic opportunity to accelerate the peace process.
"I commend Prime Minister Sharon for his bold and courageous decision to withdraw from Gaza and parts of the West Bank," he said. "I call on the Palestinians and their Arab neighbors to match that boldness and that courage."
Mr. Sharon's plan calls for the evacuation of 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four remote settlements in the West Bank, while strengthening Israeli control over other parts of the West Bank that are considered Palestinian territory.
President Bush added that is consistent with his ultimate goal of separate states living side-by-side in peace and security.
"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," he said.
The president said that it is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved through mutually agreed changes that reflect these new realities. He said the proposed Israeli withdrawal holds great promise for Palestinians to build a modern economy to lift millions out of poverty and renounce terror and violence.
"And now it is up to responsible Palestinians, caring Europeans, Americans, the United Nations to step in and help develop such a state that will be a peaceful state, one in which money will actually end up helping Palestinians to be able to grow their businesses and find wealth for their families," he added.
Once a separate Palestinian state is established, Mr. Bush said Palestinian refugees must settle there instead of reclaiming land in what is now Israel. Prime Minister Sharon said his plan would create what he calls "a new and better reality" for Israel and will set the right conditions for negotiations with Palestinians.
"Despite the repeated terror attacks against us, the people of Israel continue to wish for the achievement of a viable peace in accordance with our Jewish traditions," he added.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia rejected the president's support for the Israeli plan. He told reporters that no one has the right to give up Palestinian rights and Palestinians will not accept President Bush giving legitimacy to Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.
Earlier, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said the peace process would be dead if Washington allows Israel to keep some West Bank settlements and blocks the return of Palestinian refugees.
Prime Minister Sharon's plan will be put to a vote in his ruling Likud party on May 2. Asked by an Israeli reporter how much his endorsement might affect that vote, President Bush said the prime minister's future does not depend on him. Mr. Bush said it depends upon Mr. Sharon's capacity to convince the Israeli people that he is doing the right thing.