Bush calls for halt to new settlements as Sharon warns of 'civil war' in Israel

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The Independent US

Anxious to maintain the momentum towards an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, President George Bush has pointedly urged Ariel Sharon to halt an expansion of a key Jewish settlement on the West Bank, bitterly opposed by the Palestinians.

Anxious to maintain the momentum towards an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, President George Bush has pointedly urged Ariel Sharon to halt an expansion of a key Jewish settlement on the West Bank, bitterly opposed by the Palestinians.

Hosting the Israeli Prime Minister at his Texas ranch, Mr Bush backed Mr Sharon's plan to dismantle the 21 Israeli settlements in Gaza. But, in an unmistakeable reference to the Maale Adumim settlement, close to Jerusalem where Israel plans to build 3,650 homes, the President told reporters that he asked Mr Sharon "not to undertake any activity that contravenes the road map or prejudices final status obligations". The summit ­ Mr Sharon's first visit to the President's ranch in Texas ­ came at an especially delicate moment, amid renewed violence in Gaza that threatens a two-month ceasefire, and mounting domestic protest on the Israeli right against the dismantling of settlements there in July and August.

"The tension, the atmosphere [in Israel] looks like the eve of the civil war," Mr Sharon told NBC television before he met Mr Bush. "All my life I was defending Jews, now for the first time I'm taking steps to protect me from Jews," he said.

His remarks ­ an oblique suggestion that he might meet the same fate as Yitzhak Rabin, the former prime minister murdered by a Jewish extremist in 1995 ­ were not only a foretaste of the argument he would impress on Mr Bush.

They are also part of a wider battle to win over public opinion here, aimed at convincing Americans that Mr Sharon has done all he reasonably can to promote a settlement, and that it was now up to the new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to do his part by disarming and disbanding militant groups.

Although a majority of Israelis support the Gaza withdrawal, senior officials insist the scheduled expansion at Maale Adumim is essential, to placate right-wing opponents of the pullout from Gaza and other settlements in the West Bank.

Moreover, they argue, the new construction merely recognises Mr Bush's own public statements that a return to the 1967 borders was impossible in practice, and that under any final agreement, Israel would retain a small portion of the West Bank.

But Palestinians point out that the expansion would cut off Arab neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem, thus denying them the territorial access to the capital that has always been a non-negotiable Palestinian condition in the peace negotiations.

They also point to earlier statements by Mr Sharon and his top aides, that suggest Israel's real strategy is to use the Gaza pullout to freeze the peace process. This would leave it with 7 per cent or so of the West Bank, full ownership of Jerusalem and a concrete "fence" between Israel and the Palestinian-controlled areas.

The result would be a Palestinian territory consisting of Gaza and pockets across the West Bank, instead of the viable, mostly contiguous state envisaged by the "road map". Just possibly, however, the Gaza pullout could create a momentum that goes far beyond what Mr Sharon would like. Prime ministers might be significant, Shimon Peres, the Labour party leader and himself a former prime minister, told The Washington Post last week, "but they can't stop the winds of history. If the [Gaza] withdrawal is completed, it will create an entirely new situation, and Sharon will have to confront that."

Yesterday, tensions were subsiding in Gaza. But in another indication of likely trouble, the government said the military intended to disarm residents of four settlements in the West Bank that are also due to be dismantled this summer. The precaution is a sign of concern that settler resistance in the West Bank may be far harder to deal with than in the Gaza Strip. Access for Israeli extremists already living in the West Bank to the four tiny northern outposts is relatively easy, increasing the risk of armed conflict. And yesterday, the settlers in question said they would not hand in their guns.

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