Bush tells Israel: enough is enough

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George Bush finally placed himself at the centre of efforts to end the bloodshed in the Middle East yesterday, urging Israel to end its violent incursion into Palestinian territories immediately and announcing that Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, would be sent to the region next week.

The UN Security Council passed a resolution early today also calling on Israel to withdraw from the territories "without delay."

In a significant shift in tone and emphasis, President Bush said Israel had to end its occupation of Palestinian cities including Ramallah ­ where Yasser Arafat's headquarters is under siege ­ and withdraw to the borders set down in a series of United Nations resolutions.

He also told Israel to stop building Jewish settlements and to make efforts to spare "innocent Palestinians daily humiliation". "The storms of violence cannot go on," he said in the Rose Garden of the White House, hours after speaking to Tony Blair by telephone. "Enough is enough."

At least four Israelis and five Palestinians were killed and a number injured in the occupied territories yesterday as fighting raged. Israeli troops took over the West Bank's biggest city, Nablus, engaging in fierce battles with Palestinians barricaded in a refugee camp.

Mr Bush harshly criticised the Palestinian leader for failing to prevent the recent wave of suicide bombers and said: "The situation in which he finds himself today is largely of his own making." The President added: "He has missed his opportunities and thereby betrayed the hopes of his people. Given his failure, the Israeli government feels it must strike at the terrorist networks that are killing its citizens."

But after days of mounting international criticism of his failure to act as violence spread, Mr Bush surprised many observers who believed he was prepared to let the conflict "play itself out".

He said: "I recognise the right of Israel to defend itself. Yet, to lay the foundations of future peace, I ask Israel to halt incursions into Palestinian-controlled areas, and begin the withdrawal from those cities it has recently occupied." Mr Bush's announcement came after a discussion with Mr Blair, during which he informed the Prime Minister of the Powell initiative.

Britain has been pressing America to intervene and the plan was seen in London as a response to that pressure. Last night, Ben Bradshaw, a Foreign Office minister, hailed Mr Bush's announcement as "a very historic statement" and "hugely significant".

Mr Blair leaves today for Texas, where he will meet the President for talks that will be dominated by the situation in the Middle East which had the "makings of a catastrophe". Mr Blair said that the two sides needed to "get into what are agreed plans that have already been worked out so that we can eventually come into a proper political process and resolve this issue.

"If we're going to make a breakthrough in this, we really need to face up to two fundamental issues; that the Arab world must recognize the existence of the state of Israel and do it positively and explicitly," he told NBC News. "And, for its part, Israel and the broader world must recognize that out of the negotiated process will come a viable Palestinian state where people can then live side by side in peace."

General Powell, who spoke only days ago of Israel's "Operation Defensive Shield" continuing for another week, will now be expected to achieve something approaching a diplomatic miracle and lead both sides towards a settlement.

Washington hopes he will succeed where General Anthony Zinni, its special envoy, has failed. Israel stopped Mr Zinni from visiting Mr Arafat yesterday. Earlier it had blocked a high-level European delegation including Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, and Josep Pique, the Spanish Foreign Minister, from visiting the Palestinian leader. After Mr Bush's speech, Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minster, said he would allow Mr Zinni's visit to take place. That meeting is due to take place later today.

Mr Sharon's spokesman said of Mr Bush's speech: "We have to study it and then we will have a statement." But Silvan Shalom, the Finance Minister, a Sharon ally, was cautiously welcoming, saying that "if there will be a ceasefire, we'll be happy to pull out".

The Palestinian leadership accepted Mr Bush's declaration "without conditions" in a Cabinet statement issued early today. However, Saeb Erekat, a Cabinet minister, said Mr Bush's harsh criticism of Mr Arafat was "unjustified and unacceptable."

Ahmed Qureia, the speaker of the Palestinian Parliament, said: "We hope that Secretary Powell will bring with him a mechanism to implement this American vision."

Elsewhere in the region there was little sign of Mr Bush's words having effect. Israeli troops took over the city of Nablus and fought intense battles with gunmen barricaded in nearby refugee camps, while soldiers in Bethlehem tightened a cordon around armed Palestinians holed up in the Church of the Nativity.

At tomorrow's talks Mr Blair will urge the President to back the Powell initiative with maximum political capital. He will draw a parallel with Northern Ireland, saying that when two sides will never agree, the one way forward is intervention by a third party.