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Bush warns Sharon against settlements

Associated Press

CRAWFORD, Texas – President Bush told Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday he must not allow West Bank settlement growth and said Israelis’ and Palestinians’ doubts about each other are hampering peace prospects.

In response, Sharon said Israel will abide by the internationally negotiated “road map” peace plan, which calls for a settlement freeze, but will keep some large Jewish population blocs in the West Bank under its control.

At a joint news conference on Bush’s ranch, both leaders sounded pessimistic about near-term prospects for Middle East peace.

Sharon said Israel will not move forward on the “road map” until Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas does more to disarm militant groups and bring about “a full cessation of terror, hostilities and incitement.”

“We will continue with the negotiations only after Palestinians agree to stop the terror,” Sharon said.

Bush cited “a lack of confidence in the region. I can understand that. There’s been a lot of death. A lot of innocent people have lost their lives. And there’s just not a lot of confidence on either side.”

But if Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza is carried out 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.”

Israel is to abandon all 21 Gaza settlements and four more in the West Bank this summer. The operation will remove about 9,000 Israelis from their homes.

Israeli officials have become increasingly worried about violence in the West Bank.

Bush praised Sharon’s “courageous initiative to disengage from Gaza and part of the West Bank” and urged Palestinian leaders to accept the prime minister’s offer to coordinate the withdrawal.

At the same time, Bush said he has not budged in his opposition to settlement expansion.

“I’ve been very clear. Israel has an obligation under the ‘road map.’ That’s no expansion of settlements,” Bush said.

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