Bush: Accord with Sharon doesn’t predetermine final status

17/04/2004 WASHINGTON – United States President George W. Bush clarified Friday that the agreement he reached with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon earlier this week, did not predetermine the charachter of a permanent status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. „All final status issues must still be negotiated between the parties,” Bush said. „I look forward to the day when those discussions can begin so the Israeli occupation can be ended and a free and independent and peaceful Palestinian state can emerge.” Bush said „this is a fantastic opportunity” to launch the Palestinians to a state on land occupied by Israel. With British Prime Minister Tony Blair at his side at the White House, Bush said the plan „gives the Palestinians a chance to create a reformed, just and free government.” Blair expressed support for Sharon’s disengagement plan and called for European nations to work for its success. Blair said that if Israel follows through on its proposal, „the concept of a viable Palestinian state becomes a real possibility; not something that’s put in a document and talked about or discussed in resolutions or speeches, but actually is a real, live possibility.” Former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook wrote in a scathing front-page commentary in The Independent newspaper that Bush had abruptly abandoned the long-standing U.S. and British approach of seeking to be evenhanded brokers between Israel and the Palestinians. „George Bush has just unplugged the road map from its life-support apparatus,” Cook wrote. He „could not have delivered a worse snub to Tony Blair on the eve of their meeting.” „The prime minister may not be able to rescue the peace process, but at least he should feel freed from demonstrating solidarity with the policies in Iraq of a president who has so comprehensively failed to show solidarity with our joint policy on the Middle East,” wrote Cook, who resigned his Cabinet post of leader of the House of Commons to protest the Iraq war. Bush-Sharon understandings prompt urgent meeting of Quartet A top-level meeting of the international Quartet sponsoring the Middle East road map to peace is due to take place in Berlin on April 28, a senior European Union diplomat said on Friday. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana earlier told reporters as he arrived for a meeting with the bloc’s foreign ministers in Ireland that the talks would „probably” be around that date. „We plan for a Quartet meeting in Berlin on that date at the level of principals,” the diplomat said. Responding to questions on the backing offered by Washington this week for Israel’s claim to parts of the West Bank seized in a 1967 war, Solana said the road map – which envisages negotiations with the Palestinians – remained the basic framework for reaching a final settlement. Russia, which with the United States, the EU and the United Nations is a partner in the Quartet, earlier backed Palestinian Authority calls for an urgent meeting of the peace sponsors to iron out apparent differences of opinion with Washington. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was speaking after a meeting with Palestinian counterpart Nabil Shaath, which was overshadowed by Arab outrage at a pledge of U.S. support for Israel keeping land in the West Bank seized in 1967. Palestinians said U.S. President George W. Bush’s move would kill off a moribund peace process based around a road map backed by Washington, Moscow, the United Nations and the European Union which has been undermined by constant violence. „President Bush confirmed his commitment to the road map and I would not now start talking about deep differences before a meeting of the quartet,” said Lavrov. „A date for this has not yet been set, it must be soon. I think in the preparation for it and at the meeting itself we will clarify many questions.” The Palestinian Authority said the Quartet, which last gathered in December, should meet urgently in response. Israel’s UN Ambassador Dan Gillerman said he briefed UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Friday about the plan and Sharon’s White House meeting with Bush to try to ensure that Annan supports the initiative. „You could describe this meeting as the beginning of a diplomatic onslaught by Israel to try to elicit international support for the disengagement plan,” Gillerman told The Associated Press. Israel also wanted „to point out the absurdity of the objection of the Palestinian leadership to this plan,” he said. „This initiative is not a solution to the conflict, it is simply a measure aimed at creating conditions that can encourage stability, road map compliance, and kick-start progress toward peace,” he said. „It is completely in compliance with the road map and does not preempt any final status agreement.” Shaath said he would seek international backing for the Palestinian position. „In the next few days we plan to take corresponding steps to contact the Europeans, Russia and the Arabs … so as to confirm the legal basis of the peace process and to defend it from dangerous failure,” he told reporters via an interpreter. Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, meanwhile, echoed the call for a meeting soon of Quartet officials, to inject new vigor into the road map. Cowen said the so-called Quartet meeting „should be arranged as soon as is practical … to bring momentum to the process.” Speaking to reporters at the start of a two-day EU foreign ministers meeting, he said the EU was committed to the 2-year-old peace plan despite Bush’s support for Israel’s latest plans not to remove all West Bank settlements. He said Bush’s endorsement of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s „disengagement” plan had brought new movement in the peace process after months of inaction.

Cowen declined, when pressed repeatedly on the subject, to declare Bush’s support for Sharon’s plans incompatible with the „road map.” He stressed that, regardless of Bush’s endorsement, Palestinians must agree to any final peace deal. „It remains the case that Israel has to make peace with its enemies, not its friends,” he said. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, speaking as he arrived at the Irish meeting, echoed Cowen’s assessment. He welcomed Israel’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank, but said it was crucial that any Israeli pullbacks „take place in the context of the ‘road map.”‘ He said Sharon’s proposals „can be consistent with the road map. And, of course, we accept that any final status has to be a matter of negotiations” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. American officials say Israel’s commitment to dismantle Gaza Strip and most West Bank settlements could lead to a breakthrough in long-frozen negotiations on the „road map” peace plan, which envisioned the formation of a sovereign Palestinian state by next year