Bush, Mubarak Hail Possible Israeli Withdrawal From Gaza
By Dana Milbank   Staff Writer   April 12, 2004; 2:50 PM

CRAWFORD, Texas, April 12 -- President Bush, with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, said today that he welcomed a Israeli withdrawal from Gaza but said that would not replace the U.S. plan for an independent Palestinian state in the Middle East.

"We both are in agreement that if Israel makes the decision to withdraw, it doesn't replace the road map; it is a part of the road map so that we can continue progress toward the two-state solution,"  Bush said in response to reporters' questions here.  "The point is that decision doesn't replace the path toward the establishment of a Palestinian state that will provide hope for the Palestinian people and provide continuity."

The U.S. peace plan is known as the "road map."

The remarks by the two leaders indicated that they will not accept a peace solution that involves a unilateral Israeli departure from Gaza but not from the West Bank.  Such a position may anger Israeli hardliners on the eve of Prime Minister Sharon's Wednesday visit with Bush at the White House.

Sharon plans to close 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza, but Arab leaders fear that the Israeli prime minister's move is aimed at allowing Israel to hold territory in the West Bank indefinitely.  Sharon contemplates shutting only four of 140 Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Bush has received pressure from both Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah, with whom Bush will meet next week, over the Sharon plan.  Bush has a strong incentive to keep both men happy because he needs their support in Iraq and because he will rely on Egypt to keep terrorists from crossing its border with Gaza, which Egypt administered before the 1967 war.

"Any withdrawal from the occupied territory is very highly appreciated," said Mubarak, whose country shares a border with Gaza. "But I would like the withdrawal to coincide with the road map, which is very important, because withdrawing from Gaza alone without connecting it with the road map, we never know it will be Gaza alone.  It will be very difficult.  It will not be accepted by the public opinion in the area."

In addition, the Egyptian leader warned Bush about the violence in Iraq, echoing worries expressed by other Arab leaders. "I conveyed to the president our serious concerns about the current state of affairs, particularly in the security and humanitarian areas.  I further stressed the importance of restoring Iraq's sovereignty as soon as possible within a context that preserves its territorial integrity and unites all Iraqis toward a common future," Mubarak said.

But Bush gave an upbeat assessment of the Iraq uprising.  "The situation in Iraq has improved," he said.  He repeated his view that the rebellion is by "a few people," which he defined as "enough to cause harm, but a few relative to the rest of the people."

In response to an Egyptian reporter's question about whether the heavy U.S. military response could turn more Iraqis against the United States, Bush said: "If our soldiers are at risk they will defend themselves. . . . We're a compassionate country that cares about the loss of innocent life and it grieves us when we see innocent life lost.   However, we will defend ourselves."

Groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch <myopic imbeciles> had urged Bush to hold Mubarak to account for torture and other human rights abuses in Egypt.  But Bush, who has previously criticized Egypt on such matters, refrained today saying he is "encouraged" by the debate over reform in Egypt and predicted that Egypt "will set the standard in the region for democracy by strengthening democratic institutions and political participation."

Bush, asked if a two-state solution in the Middle East could be achieved even with Israel's construction of a security wall, Bush replied: "Yes, I think we can achieve a two-state solution." Overall, Bush said: "Our objective in the Middle East must be true peace, not just a pause between wars.  This can only happen within a framework of democracy and stability."