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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 April, 2004, 22:43 GMT 23:43 UK
Bush pre-empts Mideast negotiations

By Jon Leyne
BBC correspondent in Washington

After months of negotiation, and more than two hours of head-to-head talks with Ariel Sharon, President Bush pronounced his verdict on the Israeli plan to withdraw from Gaza with an endorsement stronger and more enthusiastic than anything the Israelis dared hope for.

"These are historic and courageous actions," said the president. "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."

Ariel Sharon and George W Bush
Mr Sharon 'got everything he wanted'
And that was just the beginning of the surprises.

In carefully crafted language, Mr Bush came close to accepting Israel's right permanently to keep some of the largest settlement blocs in the West Bank.

"In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centres, it is unrealistic that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion," Mr Bush said.

Most controversially, Mr Bush went to heart of that article of faith of the Palestinians, their right of return to 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. "

The administration will argue it is only being realistic - articulating what most people expect to be in a final peace agreement.

Indeed senior administration officials told a sceptical White House press corps they were not prejudging that final agreement.

Anti-Sharon protest
Mr Sharon still will face opposition for the pullout from Israeli settlers
"Matters of borders, matters of refugees are final status issues," explained one official. "Final status issues have to be resolved by agreement of the parties. The president says that when the parties get to those issues they'll have to take into account realities."

The difference is no US president has pre-empted the negotiations in this way before.

What Mr Bush has done is to pull the rug from under any future Palestinian negotiators by denying their demands before they have even begun talking.

What concessions could a Palestinian negotiator now hope to get in return for renouncing the right of return, for example, when he knows Washington is already committed to opposing that principle?

Bush wins at home

No wonder Ariel Sharon is delighted. Not only has he got his way, his achievement was announced on Israeli prime time television, side by side with the American president.

Mr Sharon's critics in his own Likud party, and the rest of the political scene, must know the game is up.

Even so it could be many months before the withdrawal takes place, because of lengthy legal challenges by the settlers.

West Bank settlers (not including East Jerusalem): 240,000
Settlement block populations:
Maale Adumim - 30,000
Ariel - 18,000
Kiryat Arba - 4,000
Hebron enclave - 500
Givat Zeev - 10,000
Gush Etzion - 30,000

With Mr Sharon under investigation for corruption, it is still possible he may not survive in office to see his plan put into practice.

But why did President Bush agree to these unprecedented demands?

It looks as if he was flattened by "The Bulldozer", as Mr Sharon is known. How could he be seen to be opposing the Israel lobby in this election year, after all?

Yet the Israeli leader was pushing at an open door.

In President Bush's black and white world, the Israelis are the good guys, the Palestinians, at least their leadership, are the villains.

Everyone in Washington has long since lost patience with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

So if negotiations are not possible, why not support a unilateral solution? It puts an end to "swatting flies" as he said in another context.

Certainly Wednesday's announcement will be popular for Mr Bush back home as well, not just in the Jewish lobby, but also the Christian fundamentalists who make up a crucial part of his base, amongst hard line Republicans, and of course, amongst the Democrats, who won 90% of the Jewish vote in the last elections.

But the concessions made by Mr Bush to Israel here will be difficult if not impossible for any future American President to repudiate. That would be political suicide.

The map of Middle East peacemaking has been changed for ever.




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