WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon brushed off a warning from President Bush not to allow further West Bank settlement growth, indicating Israel would continue to solidify its hold on areas it considers of strategic importance.
Sharon, speaking to reporters before flying to Washington for talks Tuesday with U.S. lawmakers and Jewish leaders, said the dispute was decades-old and did not mar the meeting between the two leaders, which he called a great success.
Sharon, who won renewed support for his plan to remove Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank at Monday’s joint news conference on Bush’s ranch in Texas, also dampened the president’s expectations that the tempo of peace talks would pick up after the withdrawal.
At the ranch, Bush told Sharon that any further building on the settlements would be in violation of the internationally backed “road map” peace plan, which both the Israelis and the Palestinians have formally accepted, but which has been long dormant with both sides failing to carry out their initial obligations.
“I’ve been very clear. Israel has an obligation under the road map. That’s no expansion of settlements,” Bush said.
But later, Sharon said that while U.S. opposition to the settlements dated back to when Israel first captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war, Israel has nevertheless continued to build communities to keep a hold on the land.
“It was not to antagonize the U.S., but to keep areas that seem strategic to Israel,” Sharon told reporters.
The latest dispute stems from differing interpretations of a statement made by Bush last year, and reaffirmed Monday, where he recognized Israel’s need to keep large settlement blocs in the West Bank. Bush cited “new realities on the ground.”
Israel believes this allows for expansion of exiting settlements, while the U.S. says this would endanger peace with the Palestinians.
Some construction will continue
The issue reappeared last month when Israel announced plans to add 3,650 homes to the West Bank’s largest settlement, Maaleh Adumim. The plan would cut off Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. The United States objected.
Sharon said Israel will keep large settlement blocs like Maaleh Adumim. “The blocs will be part of Israel, with everything that that entails,” Sharon said, indicating the construction that will link Maaleh Adumim to Jerusalem will continue.
At the summit Bush expressed optimism that Sharon’s plan to withdraw from all 21 Gaza settlements and four others in the West Bank — which he praised as courageous — would jump start the tenuous peace process.
If Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza comes off successfully, then, “I think we’ll have a different frame of mind” more conducive to pursuing peace, Bush said. “To me, that’s where the attention of the world ought to be, on Gaza.”
But there will be no progress after the Gaza pullout unless “the Palestinians completely fulfill their obligations of stopping terror attacks, waging a war against terror, destroying the terror infrastructure and reforming their security services,” Sharon said.
“I have no intent, in no way, of progressing with the road map ... until they fulfill all their obligations,” he said.
Measured praise from Bush for Abbas
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is set to meet Bush next month, has failed to confront militant groups, preferring to try and co-opt them through negotiations.
On Monday the Palestinians launched a jobs-for-guns program to grant gunmen government jobs in exchange for giving up violence.
Bush had praise for the Palestinian leadership, but also made clear more must be done. “We want to continue to work with them on consolidating security forces,” he said.
Sharon wants Palestinian leaders to guarantee that Israelis will not come under fire during settlement evacuation.
Sharon to NBC: Mood in Israel ‘like eve of civil war’
On Saturday, Israeli troops shot and killed three teenagers in disputed circumstances in the Gaza Strip, shattering weeks of calm and raising tensions. In response, Palestinian militants fired at least 21 mortar rounds at Jewish settlements there, the army said.
Referring to the mood in Israel, Sharon said in an interview with NBC News, “The tension here, the atmosphere here looks like the eve of the civil war. All my life I was defending life of Jews. Now for the first time, steps I’m taking to protect me from Jews.”
Sharon also told NBC that “maybe for the first time, there is a possibility to try and solve the problem” after there being no chance when former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat — “a murderer,” he said — was still alive.
The meeting was the first in a series of Bush meetings with Mideast leaders over the next month.
At a lunch meeting following the news conference Bush and Sharon turned to other subjects, including European diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.