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Bush, Blair Say Israeli Plan Could Create Opportunities for Palestinians - 2004-04-16

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are backing the Israeli prime minister's plan to withdraw from some occupied territories, while leaving Jewish settlements in others. The two leaders met at the White House Friday.

President Bush said the plan is a fantastic opportunity for the Middle East. "It gives the Palestinians a chance to create a reformed, just and free government," said the president. "Palestinian leadership must rise to the challenge."

Prime Minister Ariel 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 said that is consistent with his ultimate goal of separate states living side-by-side in peace and security. "When men and women live in societies that reward their hopes and recognize their dignity," said Mr. Bush, "they are far less likely to dwell on resentments and turn to violence."

Following a White House meeting with Prime Minister Sharon Wednesday, Mr. Bush said that, once a separate Palestinian state is established, Palestinian refugees should settle there, instead of reclaiming land in what is now Israel. That brought widespread criticism from Palestinian and Arab leaders about what has become known as the Palestinian right of return.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair Friday tried to make clear that they are not pre-judging how Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will settle these so-called final status issues, including refugees.

Prime Minister Blair said the withdrawal plan gives the international community an opportunity to help Palestinians build lasting political institutions. "Whatever the doubts and worries, get involved now," said Mr. Blair. "Because there is a possibility, when that disengagement happens, the Palestinian Authority have got to have the wherewithal in political, in economic, in security terms to start running the land, the territory that will be then under their control."

The prime minister said Palestinians could then use that sovereignty to get back to negotiations on a separate Palestinian state.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat this week said Washington's decision to allow Israel to keep some West Bank settlements and block the return of refugees means the peace process is dead.

Several thousand Palestinians in Gaza Friday burned effigies of Mr. Bush and Prime Minister Sharon, calling the president's statement "a new declaration of war" against Palestinians.