Bush praises Israel's 'courageous actions'
CNN       April 14, 2004 

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won praise from President Bush on Wednesday for his proposed Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

"These are historic and courageous actions," Bush said, following the leaders' meeting at the White House.

Bush also addressed the controversial so-called "right of return."

The "right of return" refers to Palestinians and descendants of refugees who left or were forced to leave Israel when the Jewish state was founded in 1948.  Palestinians demand the right to return to those lands that are now part of Israel.

"It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than Israel," Bush said.

The disengagement proposal would separate Israelis from Palestinians, who say the withdrawal plan, if followed, will ruin what hope remains of reviving the Mideast peace process.

The Palestinians object in particular to a provision that would allow Israel to retain control of six blocs of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

In advance of the meeting, Palestinian Authority officials were warning that Bush's endorsement of Sharon's plan would be a "dangerous" development.

"We are really and seriously concerned about the reports that there will be a statement or promises during a meeting between the Israeli prime minister and the U.S. president," Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qorie told reporters in Ramallah.

"As of 11 a.m. today the Palestinian leadership will be in constant meetings to follow up this dangerous development to show how dangerous this development is."

Sharon has said the withdrawal is necessary because the Palestinian Authority has failed to rein in attacks on Israelis and because the diplomatic process is in a "frozen state."

On Monday, Sharon announced that he wants Israel to keep six "large settlement blocs" of West Bank land under its control. They include Jewish settlements inside Hebron and the nearby enclave of Kiryat Arba, as well as Maaleh Adumim, Givat Ze'ev, Ariel and Gush Etzion.

"Only Israeli political initiative will retain our strong grasp of the large settlement blocs and security areas," Sharon said in a speech at Maaleh Adumim, near Jerusalem.  "These are places that will remain under Israeli control and that will continue to grow stronger and develop," he said.

In Phase 1 of of the "road map" to Mideast peace, Palestinians must end attacks against Israel, and Israel must freeze the development of settlements and dismantle those established since March 2001.  The six settlement blocs named by Sharon were built before March 2001.

The road map -- backed by the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia -- lays out steps Israel and the Palestinians must take toward ending conflict and establishing an independent Palestine by 2005.

Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erakat blasted Sharon's announcement.

"Sharon's intent to keep six settlements in the West Bank will close all doors to peace," Erakat said.   "Occupation must not be rewarded. Settlements should not be rewarded.

"To have a meaningful peace process, the Israelis need to end the occupation that began in 1967 as stipulated in the road map," Erakat said.  "We urge the United States administration and President Bush on the eve of his meeting with Sharon not to take any steps that could preempt or prejudice the issues reserved for final status negotiations, namely settlements, borders, Jerusalem and refugees."

Concerning Gaza, Sharon is proposing a complete withdrawal, including settlements and military.

Israel seized the West Bank from Jordan and Gaza from Egypt in 1967 during the Six-Day War and began building settlements there soon after.  Sharon has asked his Likud party to vote on his withdrawal proposal.

A vote has been set after his return from Washington.  Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who discussed the proposal Monday with Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, said an Israeli pullback from Gaza would be a positive step if coupled with the road map.

"Any withdrawal from occupied territory is very highly appreciated," Mubarak said, but warned that a withdrawal from Gaza, which borders Egypt, without any further steps toward a settlement "would not be accepted by public opinion in the area."

Mubarak said Egypt would do "whatever it takes" to bring the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

In addition to the disengagement proposal, Sharon's government is building a barrier around much of the West Bank, saying the partition is necessary to block Palestinian terrorists from entering Israel.

Bush said the security barrier should be "temporary rather than permanent."

Palestinians call the barrier a land grab, saying it leaves many Palestinians cut off from farms, schools and hospitals as it winds its way through portions of the West Bank.

Gaza is already separated from Israel by a fence, but Israeli troops remain in the area to guard Jewish settlements.  Removing the settlements would mean no Israelis would be left for the Israeli military to protect.

In 1994, under the Oslo Accords, Israel ceded control of most of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority, but kept control of the coastline, borders and 24 settlements where about 7,500 Israelis live in heavily guarded enclaves.