Bush joins Palestinian leader in urging Israelis to halt settlement

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Standing shoulder to shoulder, George Bush and Abu Mazen urged Israel yesterday to halt its settlement activities and strongly criticised the security fence it is building in the West Bank.

"The wall is a problem," Mr Bush declared at a joint press conference which marked the start of new efforts to give impetus to the US-backed road- map plan aimed at securing a peace settlement and Palestinian state by 2005. It was "very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and Israel with a wall snaking through the West Bank," he added.

The Israelis have ignored previous calls to halt the construction of the fence, which they say is needed to keep out militants.

The meeting was even more important for its symbolism than its content - the determination of the US to work for a Middle East peace deal, but by freezing out Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian President, whom Mr Bush regards as an accomplice to terrorism.

Since he entered the White House, Mr Bush has refused to meet Mr Arafat, let alone invite him to Washington. By contrast, Abu Mazen, who the President praised yesterday as "such a leader," was given the red carpet treatment of an Oval Office meeting followed by a joint appearance before the press in the Rose Garden.

Before they went inside to lunch together, the two men lingered, smiling, the President's arm draped around Abu Mazen - deliberately sending to the world in general and Israel in particular an image that symbolised Washington's commitment to a fair and lasting peace.

Proof, however, will only be forthcoming on Tuesday, when Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, is here. It remains to be seen whether the President will exert the real pressure on Israel he has been reluctant to do thus far - or instead put the emphasis on security concerns, as Mr Sharon prefers.

Mr Bush announced that his Treasury and Commerce secretaries would travel to Israel this autumn to start work on bringing jobs and development to Palestinian areas, for which the US is providing $20m (£12.4m) in aid.

He announced plans to create what he called a joint US-Palestine economic development group, which he said would look for "practical ways to bring jobs and growth and investment to the Palestinian economy". He added: "We must improve the daily lives of ordinary Palestinians."

Washington, he told the Palestinian Prime Minister, would strive to ensure "that promises are kept," and monitor progress towards creating a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. It was, he added, "a time of possibility in the Middle East".

Abu Mazen told the President: "We are particularly grateful for the $20m of direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority and we hope that this assistance increases and is enshrined in legislation."

Mr Bush promised to talk to Mr Sharon about the appeal from Abu Mazen for the release of Palestinian prisoners. But, he added: "Surely nobody would want to let a cold-blooded killer out of prison. I would never ask anybody in any society to let a prisoner out who would then commit terrorist actions."

He told Abu Mazen: "I'm going to tell you point blank that we must make sure that any terrorist activity is rooted out in order for us to be able to deal with these big issues."

At the press conference and in a series of speeches and interviews here, Abu Mazen insisted that Israel must live up to its commitment to remove Jewish settlement outposts on the West Bank and remove the wall. He stressed that "a transformation of human conditions on the ground" was essential, and that "attacks on the dignity of Palestinians" must end. "We have succeeded significantly where Israel with it military might has failed in reducing violence," he said.

Addressing the Council of Foreign Relations on Thursday evening, Abu Mazen was blunter still, accusing Israel of a continuing "land grab" with its settlements policy. He warned the current ceasefire by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad might collapse if Israel did not end its "occupation" of the West Bank. He also demanded "nothing less than a full freeze on settlement activity".

¿ A four year-old Palestinian boy was killed and two other children were injured yesterday in the northern West Bank village of Barta when an Israeli soldier accidentally fired a machine gun from an armoured car.