Bush tells Israel to abandon West Bank settlements

US President tries to impress Arab leaders with a stern warning for Ariel Sharon but doubts remain about road-map to peace
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George Bush served notice on Israel yesterday that it must evacuate Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The US President gave the warning at a gathering with Arab leaders in the Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Sheikh.

"Israel has got responsibilities. Israel must deal with the settlements. Israel must make sure there is a continuous territory that the Palestinians can call home," Mr Bush said.

The message will be hammered home today, when Mr Bush meets the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by the shores of the Red Sea at what will be the President's first Middle East summit.

The aim of yesterday's meetings was to get the support of the Arab world for the new "road-map" peace plan, which calls for a Palestinian state within three years.

Mr Bush, who bundled a couple of kings, a crown prince and the Egyptian President into a golf cart and personally drove them all down to the seaside for a photo opportunity, was talking to a captive audience, the leaders of Arab countries who are allies of the US.

The difficult part comes today, in the Jordanian resort of Aqaba, where Mr Bush will have to persuade Mr Sharon and the new Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, to implement the peace plan. In the weeks since it was unveiled, there has been little sign of progress towards peace: on the contrary, the violence has surged yet again.

Mr Bush will urge Mr Abbas to put an end to suicide bombings and other militant attacks by Palestinians. "You, sir," he told the Palestinian premier, "have got a responsibility, and you've assumed it. I want to work with you and so do the other leaders here."

The Israeli army chief said yesterday that he believed Mr Abbas could secure a ceasefire from militant groups "within days", although he was doubtful it would hold.

Mr Bush will confront Mr Sharon with the problem of the settlements, which are illegal under international law. But the signs are that Mr Sharon is ready for this particular ambush. Reuven Rivlin, a senior member of Mr Sharon's Likud party, told an Israeli newspaper that Mr Sharon was planning to evacuate some 17 relatively minor settlements to allow a Palestinian state contiguous territory, as echoed in Mr Bush's words at Sharm el-Sheikh yesterday.

Evacuating settlements on the West Bank will create a ruckus in Israel - but there is a trap waiting for Mr Abbas and the Palestinians here. Mr Rivlin said Mr Sharon was prepared to sacrifice the 17 settlements but insisted on keeping several other major settlements in the occupied territories - on all of which the Palestinians want to establish their state.

Still, if Mr Rivlin is privy to Mr Sharon's plans, it is further evidence that the Israeli Prime Minister is in a retreat of sorts before Mr Bush's demands. Last week he conceded for the first time that the West Bank and Gaza Strip are under Israeli occupation.

Mr Bush said: "We must not allow a few people, a few killers, a few terrorists, to destroy the dreams and hopes of the many." There were plenty of reminders for Mr Bush of the difficulties he faces ahead on a road down which he once made pretty clear he didn't want to travel - a large mural of Bill Clinton, for instance, who brought Middle East leaders to Sharm al-Sheikh for failed peace talks that Mr Bush once scorned.

One obvious intention was to present Mr Abbas alongside other Arab leaders as an equal, rather than as a subordinate to Yasser Arafat, whom the US and Israel want to freeze out of the process. That didn't entirely work: in a statement on behalf of the Arab leaders, the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak pledged support to the Palestinian Authority, but not to Mr Abbas by name.

In the wake of Mr Bush's victory in Iraq, the Arab leaders' attendance was probably more dutiful than enthusiastic. And there were signs that the talks did not go as smoothly as Mr Bush's carefully choreographed performance at the wheel of the golfcart had suggested.

Although Mr Bush's press secretary said the leaders had forgone the scheduled formal talks, preferring an informal huddle without advisers, the al-Jazeera satellite television channel reported that the start of the talks was delayed when the Arab leaders refused to go along with a demand from Mr Bush to move towards recognising Israel.