Bush warns Israel to tread carefully

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The Independent US

The United States has privately told Israel of three "red lines" it must not cross in its dealing with the Palestinians and the wider Middle East, according to the Israeli press.

According to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, the three red lines are: not to harm the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat; not to "shock the region"; and not to create "facts on the ground" that could jeopardise the Palestinian state promised in the US-backed "road-map" for peace.

If the reports are true, much less is being asked of Israel than in June, when the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, and his then Palestinian counterpart, Abu Mazen, agreed to the road-map.

But Israel has either crossed or come close to crossing all three red lines in recent months. In September, after a series of suicide bombings by Palestinian militants, the Israeli cabinet decided to expel Mr Arafat, only to back away from the decision. In October, Israel risked destabilising the region when it carried out an air strike on a disused Palestinian militant base in Syria.

Mr Sharon's government continues to establish new facts on the ground that could prejudice a Palestinian state. Despite US opposition, it is continuing to build a "separation fence" in the West Bank instead of along the internationally recognised Green Line border. Mr Sharon's government is also building hundreds of homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The "road-map" calls for a halt to settlement expansion.

In Jerusalem yesterday protesters tried to stop bulldozers working on a new Jewish settlement in Arab East Jerusalem. Palestinians want East Jerusalem, which was occupied by Israel in 1967, to be capital of a Palestinian state. Israel claims it has annexed occupied East Jerusalem, and that new Jewish "neighbourhoods" are not settlements. But that is not recognised internationally, and a US official said yesterday that the new construction was "settlement activity" and "inconsistent with the road-map".

The US has cut $290m (£167.9m) from loan guarantees intended to bail out Israel's ailing economy to signal its unhappiness over the settlement expansions. But Mr Sharon appears convinced that with President Bush preoccupied with Iraq and his chances of re-election, he can ride out the storm. US criticism has been muted so far.