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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 July, 2003, 20:08 GMT 21:08 UK
Sharon and Bush fence over roadmap
By Gordon Corera
BBC correspondent in Washington

This was the eighth time that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had visited the Bush White House. But what made it significant was that it was the first since a Palestinian leader was welcomed to Washington.

As he went into his meeting, Mr Sharon will have been all too aware that the visit of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas last Friday has changed the dynamic in Washington.

Ariel Sharon and George W Bush at the White House
The leaders found common ground amid disagreements
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was never invited to the Bush White House, but the administration has decided that Mr Abbas - also known as Abu Mazen - is someone they can do business with and whose grievances and concerns they will take seriously.

However, anyone who expected a major change in tone from President Bush with regards to Israel would have been disappointed.

Mr Bush acknowledged the list of grievances that Mr Abbas had presented and stressed the need to do more to improve the daily lives of Palestinians.

To try to defuse some of the pressure, Mr Sharon also arrived with some concessions such as the release of about 500 Palestinian prisoners and the dismantling of some roadblocks, although Palestinians argue that the bigger issues - especially continued settlement activity and growth on the West Bank - have not been addressed.

Sharon stonewalls

The most contentious issue was always going to be the security barrier that Israel is building around - and through - Palestinian land in the West Bank.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas with US President George W Bush
Last week, the Palestinian leader was welcomed to Washington

Last Friday President Bush came out with strong words. "I think the wall is a problem," he said then. "It is very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and the Israelis... with a wall snaking through the West Bank."

But Mr Sharon was not going to budge on this issue, arguing that the barrier is integral to Israel's security and fighting terror.

The Israeli prime minister was reported to have taken into the White House aerial photographs, maps and other materials to try to convince Mr Bush that the fence will help stop attacks by Palestinian militants.

As a result, despite disagreeing, there was no great face-off between the two on the subject when it came to their press conference.

'Act against militants'

On the fundamental issue for Israel - the demand that the Palestinians do more to dismantle what Israel calls "terrorist organisations and their infrastructure" - President Bush was in full support.

Even though there has been a lull in violence and attacks, Israel is concerned that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are using a temporary ceasefire to rearm and regroup for future attacks.

President Bush stressed the need for more action from the Palestinian side, linking progress here to the future of the barrier.

The meetings over the last few days were about the US nudging a roadmap peace process which had become stalled after a promising start.

Although there has been a drop in violence, neither side has fulfilled all of their obligations. Each is looking to the US to pressure the other to act first.

It is now likely to take a few days and perhaps weeks to see whether these meetings will be followed by any real, substantive movement on the ground.




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