President Bush and Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon pledged Monday to press for peace in the Middle East, yet Sharon adamantly resisted Bush's plea to refrain from settlement expansion in the disputed West Bank.
The highly public standoff between the two leaders centers on Sharon's intention of building new housing between Jerusalem and the community of Maale Adumim, the largest Israeli settlement in the West Bank.
Bush sternly calls the plan a violation of the "road map to peace" that Israeli and Palestinian leaders have embraced. Sharon calls it essential to ensuring that any lasting peace accord includes an Israeli map encompassing all of his nation's major population centers.
Palestinian leaders expressed satisfaction that Bush's emphasis on halting Israeli settlement expansion marked a departure from his strong support for Sharon's positions at a meeting a year ago. Then, Bush backed Sharon's view that Israel would retain large West Bank settlement blocs, saying that "new realities on the ground, including already-existing major Israeli population centers" have to be taken into account.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said of Monday's meeting: "The most important thing was the call to stop settlement activity. I hope Mr. Sharon adheres to it. If he doesn't, there will be no point in talking about a two-state solution."
Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian deputy prime minister, also welcomed Bush's remarks: "I know how much effort was expended by the Israeli team in trying to persuade Mr. Bush not to say anything about settlements. ... We were relieved that this time Mr. Bush made his voice heard on the necessity to freeze settlement activity."
PRESIDENT TRIES TO EXPLAIN CONTRADICTION
"If he listens to what I say, he won't hear anything contradictory," said Bush, maintaining during a news conference with Sharon that he has taken a consistent stance on the issue. "Israel has obligations under the road map. The road map clearly says no expansion of settlements," said Bush, suggesting the last word has not been uttered on the matter.
"We'll continue to work with Israel on their obligations, and the Palestinians have got obligations," Bush said. "And it seems like an important role for the United States is to remind people of the obligations and ... continue to work with people so that we can achieve the peace."
Sharon, standing to Bush's right, stood equally firm.
"I'm not disappointed," Sharon said. "I think both of us are committed to the road map.
"Maale Adumim is one of the blocs of Jewish population, and our position is that this would be part of Israel," Sharon said. "We are very much interested that it will be a contiguity between Maale Adumim and Jerusalem. It is the Israeli position that the major Israeli population centers will remain in Israel's hands."
In addition, Sharon asserted, no negotiation between Israel and Palestinian leaders will take place until Palestinians squelch terrorism in the region.
"Only after the Palestinians fulfill their obligations primarily, a real fight against terrorism, the dismantling of its infrastructure can we proceed toward negotiations based on the road map," Sharon said. "I hope that this phase will arrive soon."
The conflict between Bush and Sharon has a positive side-effect, according to Anthony Cordesman, an expert on Israeli-Palestinian relations at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies: Palestinians appreciate the pressure Bush is placing on Israel more than any "cosmetic agreement" between the two.
"The fact of the matter is that if this is ever going to work for the Bush administration, the U.S. has to make it clear that it is pushing Israel for peace," Cordesman said. "This meeting was never going to be some radical advance toward peace."
Despite Monday's disagreement, the U.S.-Israeli relationship is deep. Bush was careful to publicly praise Sharon as a "visionary leader," and the White House described the meeting between Bush and Sharon as "friendly and warm."
Afterward, the two leaders stood outside the president's new ranch office, a single-story stone building framed with Texas blue bonnets in bloom and cactus. They were joined by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Bush also attempted to shift the public focus of attention on their meeting to the Gaza Strip, where Sharon is proceeding with plans to withdraw all settlements despite mounting fears of violence by Israeli settlers refusing to leave.
Bush maintains that a withdrawal from Gaza will bolster a "confidence" lacking among both Israeli and Palestinian leaders that they are committed to establishing two free states living peacefully side by side. Israel plans to dismantle all 21 settlements in Gaza as well as four in the northern West Bank in July and August, removing about 9,000 Israelis.
"That's where the attention of the world ought to be on Gaza," Bush said. "There's a lack of confidence in the region. ... I think we have a chance to build confidence. ... And I'm convinced the place to earn to gain that confidence is to succeed in the Gaza."
Sharon, calling their session "a very friendly meeting," said on his way to lunch and a "windshield" tour of the ranch in Bush's pickup truck: "We discussed many issues that we agreed upon, and no doubt that we will continue to work together."