|Israeli PM Sharon (left) and President Bush|
President Bush says Israel should not build new settlements in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with President Bush at his ranch in Texas.
The President says Israel must abide by an international peace plan known as the road map, which prohibits the construction of new settlements. "I've been very clear. Israel has an obligation under the road map. That is no expansion of settlements," he said.
Prime Minister Sharon is planning to start withdrawing more than 8,000 Israelis from Gaza and parts of the West Bank in July.
While that plan would close all 21 Israeli settlements in Gaza and four of the 120 settlements in the West Bank, Mr. Sharon has also approved plans to build more than three-thousand new housing units in a West Bank settlement east of Jerusalem.
But the United States has objected to the Israeli plan to build the additional homes in the West Bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim.
Speaking to reporters after their meeting at the Bush ranch in the nearby town of Prairie Chapel, Prime Minister Sharon said he was not disappointed by the president's opposition to new Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
He told Mr. Bush that Israel will meet all its obligations under the peace plan regarding settlements and will remove unauthorized outposts.
But as for the largest Israeli settlements already in the West Bank, Prime Minister Sharon says those will forever remain part of Israel. "It is the Israeli position that the major Israeli population centers will remain in Israel's hands under any future final status agreement, with all related consequences," he said.
President Bush continues to support that position, as he did one year ago when he endorsed the prime minister's plan for pulling out of Gaza. He says existing population centers must be taken into account in talks on the final dividing line between two independent states. "New realities on the ground make it unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will be achieved only on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities. That's the American view," he said.
Prime Minister Sharon is counting on that U.S. support to help convince Israeli critics that his planned withdrawal from Gaza and northern areas of the West Bank does not mean the end of all Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Some settlers have become increasingly vocal in their opposition to the prime minister's plan. For the first time, Mr. Sharon told NBC news, he has increased his own personal security because of Israeli threats. "There is an atmosphere of civil war, but I am fully convinced that I will make every effort to avoid that, and I am sure that we will be able to implement the disengagement plan with all its difficulties quietly and peacefully," he said.
President Bush praised the Israeli leader for what he calls his "courageous initiative" to pull out of Gaza and part of the West Bank.
Mr. Bush says there is a new opportunity for peace in the Middle East following the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the election of a new leader, Mahmoud Abbas. President Bush, who never met with Mr. Arafat, has invited Mr. Abbas to the United States for talks. No date has been set.