WASHINGTON (AP) — Breaking with long-standing U.S. policy,
President Bush yesterday endorsed Israel’s retention of part
of the West Bank in any final peace settlement with the
Palestinians. In a show of support for Israel’s leader that
brought immediate condemnation from the Palestinians, Bush also
ruled out Palestinian refugees ever returning to Israel.

An elated Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said his plan
would create “a new and better reality for the state of
Israel.”

But minutes after Bush spoke, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed
Qureia said in Ramallah that “he is the first president who
has legitimized the (Israeli) settlements in Palestinian
territories.”

Qureia added, “We as Palestinians reject that. We cannot
accept that. We reject it and we refuse it.”

Separately, anticipating what Bush would say, Palestinian leader
Yasser Arafat had earlier called it “the complete end of the
peace process.”

Bush, in a historic news conference with a broadly smiling
Sharon, endorsed as “courageous” the Israeli
leader’s plan to pull out of Gaza and parts of the West
Bank.

The president said there were “new realities” on the
West Bank since Israel captured the territory in the 1967 Mideast
war. Bush said major Israeli population centers in the West Bank
now make it “unrealistic to expect the outcome of final
status negotiations will be a full and complete return” to
pre-war borders.

Past U.S. administrations had anticipated only minor changes in
the old borders as part of a final peace deal between Israel and
the Palestinians. Bush’s statement went much further,
amounting to a clear endorsement of Sharon’s proposal that
some large Jewish settlements must remain on the West Bank
temporarily, and a backing of the Sharon position that some Jewish
settlements must always remain there.

Bush’s endorsement of Sharon’s plan came with no
Palestinian leaders present — in what was the Arab world was
sure to see as a strong favoring of Sharon and a slight to the
Palestinians. Palestinian leaders had previously said they had been
assured by the Bush administration that they would be consulted
before any Bush endorsement of Sharon’s plan.

Bush urged the Palestinians to match Israel’s
“boldness and courage.”

Specifically, Bush said a final peace deal should call for
Palestinian refugees to be settled in a Palestinian state, not in
Israel.

Bush said the “realities on the ground and in the region
have changed greatly” and should be reflected in any final
peace deal — a key concession, sought by Sharon, to the fact
that Israel has large groups of settlers in the West Bank.

Sharon said he was encouraged by Bush’s support, which the
Israeli leader had sought as a way to boost his own party’s
support. The Israeli leader said his “disengagement”
plan would improve Israel’s security and economy, and set the
right conditions for negotiations with the Palestinians.

Asked outright if the United States recognized Israel’s
right to keep some settlements in the West Bank, Bush said Sharon
had started the process of removing settlements from the West
Bank.

He said final decisions about Israeli settlements in the West
Bank had to wait for “final status” negotiations
between the Israelis and Palestinians on a Palestinian state.

Bush emphasized that the security fence Israel is building
against Palestinian terror attacks “should be temporary
rather than permanent, and therefore not prejudice any final status
issues, including final borders.”

Both the Palestinians and Israelis have responsibilities to
undertake in the search for peace, Bush said. (Yesterday), Israel
“stepped up to those responsibilities,” Bush said, and
Palestinians must do the same.

“If all parties choose to embrace this moment, they can
open the door to progress and put an end to one of the
world’s longest-running conflicts,” Bush said.

Sharon is hoping Bush can help him persuade hardliners in his
Likud Party to back a withdrawal. Some 200,000 Likud members are to
vote on the pullout plan, and approval is not assured.

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