Bush promises Palestinians 'a just peace'

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The Independent US

President Bush sought last night to calm Arab fears of a switch in US policy on the Middle East amid reports that Israel had been considering tentative new proposals for a political settlement of its conflict with the Palestinians.

President Bush sought last night to calm Arab fears of a switch in US policy on the Middle East amid reports that Israel had been considering tentative new proposals for a political settlement of its conflict with the Palestinians.

The President insisted after a Washington meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan that he remained committed to negotiations between Palestinians and Israel for a "just peace" despite concessions to the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, last month that appeared to pre-empt such talks.

Arab leaders, including King Abdullah, had reacted angrily to President Bush's acceptance in a meeting with Mr Sharon that Israel would be able to keep large settlement blocs on the Palestinian side of the 1949-67 borders in a future peace deal.

While notably refraining from the withdrawal of his promises to Mr Sharon, the US President declared at a joint press conference with the King in Washington: "All final-status issues must be negotiated between the parties ... and the United States will not prejudice the outcome of those negotiations."

As Bush aides continued to reassure Israeli officials that he stood by his promises to Mr Sharon, the President also said he would be writing a letter to the Palestinian Prime Minister, Ahmad Qureia, "that will explain my views, and we will expand dialogue between the United States and Palestinians".

The diplomatic balancing act came as Israel's largest circulation newspaper reported that one of Mr Sharon's key advisers had drawn up a radical plan for a international political solution to the conflict involving Palestinian territory passing to the "custodianship" of Egypt, Jordan and the US. According to the unconfirmed plan, as reported by two of Yedhiot Ahronoth's senior commentators, the Palestinians would receive 89 per cent of the West Bank. But Israel would receive the remaining 11 per cent, ensuring that most of its big West Bank settlements would remain intact. The report suggested that the proposal, drawn up by Giora Eiland - the architect of Mr Sharon's plan to evacuate settlers from Gaza - was supposed to be the next stage after the withdrawal from Gaza, for which Mr Sharon signally failed to secure backing from his own Likud party members last Sunday.

Under the supposed plan, Egypt would allocate an area of 600 sq km in the Sinai to the Palestinians, increasing the area of Gaza threefold while benefiting from an additional 200 sq km of the Negev desert to the east of Gaza. The area would be joined by a tunnel to Jordan, which would gain access to a new deep-water port in Gaza.

The report said the plan was intended to be issued as a European Union initiative, to which Israel was supposed to agree. Mr Sharon's plan to disengage from Gaza would have been a first step towards the plan. But the report cast doubt on whether such an initiative would be plausible, given Likud's rejection of disengagement in last Sunday's referendum.

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