Us egypt back gaza pullout
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U.S., Egypt back Gaza pullout
By Joseph Curl
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
CRAWFORD, Texas — President Bush and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak yesterday expressed cautious support for Israel's proposal to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, but only as part of an existing pact to establish a permanent Palestinian state.
The year-old "road map" to Middle East peace, drafted by the Quartet — the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations — envisions two states living side by side in peace by 2005. But since its inception, very little movement toward that goal has been accomplished, especially during a recent wave of terrorism and retaliatory strikes by Palestinians and Israelis.
But the Egyptian leader, who acknowledged that the conflict "could have been solved several years ago," said any movement toward peace is commendable.
"I think any withdrawal from the occupied territory is very highly appreciated," he told reporters at a joint press conference at Mr. Bush's ranch. "But I would like the withdrawal to coincide with the road map, which is very important, because withdrawing from Gaza alone, without connecting it with the road map, we never know it will be Gaza alone."
Like other prominent Arab leaders, Mr. Mubarak is concerned that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan might mean that Israel would seek to permanently occupy other Palestinian land. The prime minister's proposal calls for closing all 21 Gaza Strip settlements, but would shut down just four of 120 Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
Mr. Mubarak's fear was realized late yesterday when Mr. Sharon announced Israeli plans to keep its largest Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank.
"Only Israeli political initiative will retain our strong grasp of the large settlement blocs and security areas," Mr. Sharon said at Israel's biggest West Bank settlement.
There are more than 200,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, home to more than 2 million Palestinians.
The Washington Times reported yesterday that Israeli political sources say Mr. Sharon has struck a deal with the Bush administration, in which he will get a written U.S. pledge that in exchange for a Gaza Strip pullout, Israel will be able to keep parts of the West Bank as part of a future peace deal.
Mr. Mubarak, who spoke before Mr. Sharon announced his intentions in the West Bank, said many in the Arab world will oppose Israel's unilateral plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.
"It will be very difficult. It will not be accepted by the public opinion in the area," he said.
Mr. Bush — who called for a "true peace" in the Middle East, "not just a pause between wars" — also expressed guarded hope that Mr. Sharon's proposal can be the first step in reviving the all-but-dead "road map.
"If he were to decide to withdraw from the Gaza, it would be a positive development," the president said, noting, however, that the proposal "doesn't replace the road map. It is a part of the road map, so that we can continue progress toward the two-state solution."
The president cautioned that reports of the planned Israeli pullout are merely "rumors" and said he would not "prejudge" what Mr. Sharon, who visits the White House tomorrow, might propose.
"We discussed the rumors of such a withdrawal," Mr. Bush said. "Let's wait until the prime minister comes."
Mr. Bush met last June in Aqaba, Jordan, with Mr. Sharon and then-Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the first steps toward implementing the "road map." Both sides offered concessions: Mr. Sharon pledged to dismantle some outposts of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and Mr. Abbas vowed to bring an end to armed Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation.
The U.S. president had met the previous day in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, with Mr. Abbas and the leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Bahrain to seek Arab support. All five leaders agreed to fight "the culture of extremism and violence" that had derailed previous peace bids.
But since then, Mr. Abbas has been ousted as the Palestinian prime minister, despite his support from the Bush administration and others in the region; Arab leaders have been virtually mute on the surge in terrorism in the Middle East, with none expressing even mild support for the U.S.-led ouster of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein; and violence has surged between Israelis and Palestinians, leaving hundreds on both sides of the conflict dead.
In the meantime, Israel has completed one section of a 200-mile barricade around their West Bank territory. The Foundation for Middle East Peace, a Washington think tank, says the barricade — which Arabs call a "wall," and Israelis and Mr. Bush call a "fence" — eventually will surround 40 percent of the West Bank. Palestinians say the barrier will take 55 percent of their territory.
Mr. Bush, who said in Egypt last year, "All progress toward peace requires the rejection of terror," yesterday again called on both sides to battle the international scourge.
"The starting point for a prosperous and peaceful Middle East must be the rejection of terror," he said.
But Mr. Mubarak did not call for an end to terror in the region, saying only that the two leaders had "discussed our joint effort to fight terror" and that they "agreed to intensify our extensive cooperation in this regard, to include finding solutions to the political and economic problems that represent the underlying causes of terrorism."
Mr. Bush asserted that "the future of the Middle East and the future of Iraq are closely linked" as he expressed gratitude for Mr. Mubarak's support as the nation "transitions to democracy and stability."
But Mr. Mubarak offered a mild rebuke on Iraq, saying he had "serious concerns about the current state of affairs, particularly in the security and the humanitarian areas."
He told the president that he supports "restoring Iraq's sovereignty as soon as possible within a context that preserves its territorial integrity and unites all Iraqis toward a common future."
Mr. Mubarak also urged Mr. Bush to continue his "recent efforts to increase the role of the U.N. in that process."